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My Linux Webcam Adventure

Date/Time Permalink: 06/16/12 04:33:14 pm
Category: Reviews

Getting started:

Long ago, I accepted the fact that I'm a weirdo magnet. It makes sense when you devote your life to exploring the fringe. And every now and then, one of those weirdos turns out to be a creep.

So the creep I've attracted lately (who - I am 90%+ confident, will never read this post) has taken to paying nocturnal visits to Casa de Penguin and leaving little presents for me to find on my front doorstep in the morning. Once it was threatening graffiti (addressed to me by name) written in marker on my doorstep, once it was a busted open key-safe (keys missing) which resulted in a panicked phone call to the locksmith to change all the locks, and most recently, a dead furry creature of some sort.

And this is where it started getting surreal.

No, I haven't gotten in trouble with the White Trash Mafia. Rest assured, I know the person - know where he lives, even. But without evidence or witnesses, police can't do much. So it was time to implement a little igloo security.

All I have currently in my bottomless box o' gadgets is a Pixart Imaging Cammaestro Snake Eye Webcam - really old, I know. If you Google all that, you'll find quite a few people having problems with it on Linux systems. We're not really webcam people around here. And this was poor for surveillance purposes, since, like most consumer-grade webcams, it's not designed to be discreet, it's designed to be a big gaudy doohickey to clip to your laptop and have weird virtual micro-relationships on Chatroulette. So I had to set this up outside under some camouflage. I also had to tape over the shiny green light on the front of it that glows whenever it's plugged in.

Luck is with me, for once. The webcam worked out of the box. Plug it in and type "lsusb" and it shows right up. Then it was time to investigate software. I found two choices that work about equally well:

The recording software:

Mon, I don't dip on nobody's side.

Cheese

Cheese is the more playful, fully-featured software. It's got a gallery of effects filters. However, it runs better on my older Ubuntu desktop, but can't seem to find the camera on my newer Fedora laptop. So there might be kernel driver issues with Cheese. But if you're looking for a fun app for producing wacky webcam shows of the kids to send to grandma, I'd go with Cheese.

Cheese saves videos in .ogv (Ogg) format.

Can you Deathnote fans tell my current mindset from the wallpaper?

Kamoso

Kamoso is a more basic app. It's all business, and hence more suited to the purpose of security. I notice (although this might be any number of variables) that I was able to get a cleaner, sharper picture with Kamoso. It also worked happily on the laptop, my main mobile battle station in Operation Creep, so I went with that.

Kamoso saves videos in .mkv (Matroska) format.

Both apps can snap single frames, record video, and live-stream. Both have settings to adjust brightness, contrast, saturation, and hue. In addition, Kamoso also has a slider to adjust gamma. Both programs were simply plug-n-play for me without tweaking. But keep in mind that any number of variables will affect things here - your hardware, kernel drivers for USB, video drivers, codecs, and so on.

Now I could just set up my camera outside, snake the USB cord inside, and record from my laptop. Of course, consumer-grade webcams are notoriously poor at shooting outside in both daylight (too bright and washed-out) and night (too dark and grainy). But luckily, our suspect was thoughtful enough to decorate himself from head to toe in more tattoos, piercings, and body mods than the crowd at a Rammstein concert, so he'll be clearly identifiable even from a grainy glimpse of a limb. It's Geek vs. Freak!

The playback software:

Apparently .mkv is a troublesome format. Totem, my usual goto for video viewing, seemed to have a hard time with jumping forward and backward or tracking the video progress on large files. The slider at the bottom just wouldn't cooperate; either it jumped to the end or all the way back to the beginning, regardless of what action I took. It was fine on five-minute test shots. I had similar issues with Dragon Player, Miro, Kaffeine, and even mPlayer!

Let me explain: Your needs in reviewing surveillance are different from watching a film. You don't want to have to sit through eight hours of staring across a yard looking for five minutes of activity (plus false alarms for the newspaper delivery and the occasional deer). You want to be able to efficiently fast-forward, back up, freeze frames, step one frame at a time, and isolate one chunk of frames.

Also, when running on continuous record, Kamoso doesn't save the file to disk until you hit the stop button. That works out to about 150MB per hour, so you'd better have enough RAM. I've found myself getting up several times through the night to stop and save periodically, just to be sure.

If I had the time, I'd tweak out a solution with motion detectors and an Arduino and do all the attendant research, in order to record video only when something happens. I envy those more dedicated hardware hackers. Perhaps I'll go that route later, since I accidentally acquired an Arduino Uno which I have been too busy to get into yet. Come to that, I've seen enough YouTube videos showing off Maker-Space-type microcontroller projects that I know you could rig up some elaborate mantrap with alarms and floodlights and Temple-of-Doom blowdarts, but I don't know if we're going that far yet.

For now, I hit on VLC. VLC is practically the Emacs of media players. Go into the Tools menu and open Preferences and select 'all' at the bottom left of this dialog and you'll see what I mean. You could play all day with this stuff.

For me, the fast-forward speed playback was just the ticket for scanning through a night's worth of footage. You can also jump to a certain time mark from a dialogue. You can speed the video up to 32x, then slow it down when the visitor appears.

Conclusion:

Well, if anybody out there have better suggestions for better viewing / capturing software for surveillance purposes, feel free to pipe up. I'd just as soon have something in the editing sphere that could take a five-minute clip out and slap it into jpg/png image frames, but so far when I've tried that with ffmpeg, the results have been disastrous for the hours-long video... I guess because of the compression? Perhaps there's a home-security solution out there I haven't found yet, one that dumps to disk in set time increments and has other features handy for security purposes?

I'm still fumbling about with this, though.

Also, webcam people, you need to try to make a webcam that doesn't stick out like a clown at a funeral. I miss those old "counterspy shops" I used to see out on the west coast - haven't found any in the Midwest yet. How about something the size of a quarter, battery powered, transmitting wifi so you don't need to string USB cable everywhere?

And finally, I'm grateful that this incident pushed me into learning a little bit of video geeking which I might otherwise not have pursued. As the late, great Kurt Vonnegut said, "Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God".

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