How do I build a home video monitoring system using a Mac?
March 29, 2009 8:03 PM   Subscribe

Following up on an unanswered question from August, I'm still trying to figure out a good way to build a top-notch home security camera system. Naturally, I don't want to do it the standard way...

So here's the setup:

- one (1) house
- one (1) mac mini
- four (4) Lorex security cameras with BNC connectors
- one (1) wireless network
- one (1) broadband internet connection
- one (1) raging case of homeowner insecurity because the Atlanta government is more focused on touting the fact that violent crime is down than they are on attending to the outrageous spike in property crime.

I purchased a Lorex DVR system (with cameras) a few days ago. The hardware is great. The software ... not so much. It has a network jack, but to call its network connectivity "unique" would barely address the topic, and browser-based monitoring software (a) only works in IE and (b) is really bad. And it doesn't even do some simple things like, oh, email an alert when a camera detects motion.

So what I'd like to do is either find a way to get the DVR itself to talk to another computer (difficulty: OS X) or take the thing back, buy the cameras separately, and get them talking to my mac.

Things I need:

- Security software for the Mac that can handle multiple cameras and can extract any portion of archived video in a standard format (uploading snapshots or small video snippets to a server when an alarm is triggered would be a plus; I'm assuming most solutions these days would have email or SMS alerts).
- Some sort of hub (?) to connect four BNC cameras to the Mac (it's an older mini, so I think it has Firewire 400 plus USB).

The Google gave me a bunch of links from around 2003, including a few pieces of software that are apparently no longer being developed.

So, mefites, any ideas? Bonus points for any ideas for securing the mini itself in a hidden location so the nefarious evildoers can't steal it (not that they ever bother with anything other than flat screen TVs and laptops).
posted by socratic to Technology (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know anything about the Lorex, but it sounds like it's the weak point in this whole thing. Just from the sound of its crummy software and networking implementation, I'd drop that like it's hot.

Instead, I'd pick up some more well-standardized network cameras; the kind where each camera connects via Ethernet and has a built-in web server. (Really, each camera contains a camera and a low-power computer for running the thing and serving up images.) Linksys makes several models, as do some other manufacturers. I don't want to make any specific recommendations because it's been 2 or 3 years since I've really looked into them. If you're mounting any of them in accessible locations make sure you get hardened/theft-resistant ones ... or better yet, camouflage them well and put out some old/cheap ones as decoys.

Anyway, once you get better network cameras there's a whole world of software you can use to analyze the data. On the Mac, I have played with SecuritySpy and it's pretty cool. It will monitor multiple cameras and does motion-detection (very configurable) and can even do neat tricks like buffer the video coming from a camera, and then when motion is detected, start recording to a file — starting 15 seconds before the motion was seen. This is handy because it means you can set the motion-detection area just over a part of the frame (over a door, say), but when someone enters that area you get a recording that shows their entire approach. But you don't get recordings every time somebody just happens to stroll by in the camera's field of view.

I've only used SecuritySpy with FireWire cameras, so I'm not sure exactly what the performance will be like on networked ones (it would probably depend on the camera, and whether it transmits FMV or a series of stills), but it's worth looking at.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:52 PM on March 29, 2009

I suggest starting with cameras that actually produce an image of evidentiary value, a requirement which, alas, lets almost all "security cameras" out. Most of the cameras on the market produce images of such low quality that identifying one human-looking blob from another is virtually impossible.

Here is a starting point but these are probably only fair at best.
posted by bz at 10:54 PM on March 29, 2009

Some other camera options of varying quality but most are megapixel class.
posted by bz at 11:16 PM on March 29, 2009

I don't know anything about the Lorex camera (or system or whatever). However, if I were going to do this (as someone who consults on surveillance cameras for the transportation industry) I would set myself up with the cheapest IP cameras I could find (some camera companies you might look into: Sony, Axis, Bosch [expensive, but great], but I'm more familiar with the expensive stuff, so there's probably some companies that market to the home security crowd). Make sure that these cameras have applets on the camera themselves. That is, that your home network will assign the camera an IP address, and once connected browsing to that address with any camera on your home network will bring up the image of the camera along with the applet that it runs. This shouldn't pose a problem for your mac mini as it is all browser based. Run in multiple tabs to control multiple cameras. There may be free options for software (like Kadin2048's SecuritySpy) that wouldn't require your cameras to have a video control applet, but whatever the case the cameras should have a webserver at least.

You will need to have an (at least) unmanaged switch on your network (and all of your cameras connected to it by hook or by crook). D-Link makes these, and you can offset your costs by getting rid of the DVR. Many IP cameras will allow you to control recording from the browser applet (or you could do this from third-party software), and you can assign a place on an external hard drive to record on alarm, record continuous, or post JPEGs at assigned intervals.

How are you cameras connecting to the computer right now, with the BNC connectors? It sounds like you're missing a piece between the analog video your camera is broadcasting and the digital image you want to view on your computer. Unless the DVR is encoding the video?
posted by nameless.k at 8:29 AM on March 30, 2009

Response by poster: How are you cameras connecting to the computer right now, with the BNC connectors?

They're not. That's one of the steps that I need to figure out.

I think I'm going to take the package I have no back and start from scratch with the IP camera solution. The hardware/networking part of it doesn't bother me (I used to install and maintain large corporate networks, etc.).

I will report back.
posted by socratic at 4:20 PM on March 30, 2009

You'd probably save a lot of money and get a better end result if you bought some old point-n-shoot digital cameras. Anything with a BNC connector is likely to be old-fashioned NTSC component video which is low resolution and interlaced. Most digital cameras made this decade can talk over USB and give much better pictures. Get something made in the last 5 years and you're likely to be able to control it over USB and get a decent framerate. Get a Canon supported by CHDK and you can probably turn it into a perfect motion-detecting, USB-talking, light-level-adjusting wondercam. If it is also supported by Canon capture or PSRemote then you're in business.
posted by bigtex at 4:05 AM on April 1, 2009

Oh, and short of rolling your own, get some real network cameras from Axis. I used their stuff at a previous job over 5 years ago and it was really slick. By now I'm sure it's even better.

Best part is it's networked, so you don't need any other magic interface to make it work with your computer. You could use the web interface, use an app on the Mac to manage them, or even do something lightweight like use ftp to grab images off of the cameras at intervals.

But all you'd need would be the cameras and the computer (and the network infrastructure, which you already have).
posted by bigtex at 4:13 AM on April 1, 2009

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