It's a Bird. It's Another Bird!

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Editor's Note: Shawn will be revisiting his birdcam in the December issue of Linux Journal, so here's the original article in the series to refresh your memory.

My new full-time job is one that I can do from my home office. One of the perks of working at a home office is that an office with a window is almost guaranteed. Because I have an office window for the first time in my career (not counting the one year I had a part-time office facing the dumpster), I figured it would be the perfect opportunity to put up some bird feeders.

Unfortunately for my family, but very fortunately for the local birds, when I decide to do something, I usually go all in. Rather than a simple feeder with mixed bird seed, I decided to get various types of feeders, specialized seed, a bird bath with flowing water and trees planted for shade and cover. My family refers to the area outside my office window as "BirdTopia" (Figure 1). And they haven't even seen the heated bird bath and peanut feeders I have planned for winter!

Figure 1. BirdTopia as Seen via BirdCam

So, what does my obsession with bird watching have to do with Linux? Well, obsession demands that either I stare out my window all day and lose my job, or I figure out some way to watch my birds while staring at a computer screen. Enter: BirdCam. I needed a way to stream a live video feed of BirdTopia, without spending any more money. (The "not spend money" part was implied by my wife.)

The Camera

Because I don't share an office with anyone, my camera options didn't have to be pretty. I considered a USB Webcam, but all the Webcams I have are really low quality. Thankfully, I have a drawer full of old cell phones that have been replaced with newer models. I had three iPhone 3GS handsets and a Samsung Galaxy S2 with a cracked screen. The iPhones seemed to be in better shape, so first I tried to use one of them. I purchased a $5 application called iWebcamera, which turns an iOS device into an IP camera with a built-in Web server. Unfortunately, the iPhone 3GS has a pretty cruddy camera, so although the application worked well, I wasn't satisfied.

Next up was my Galaxy S2 phone with the cracked screen. Obviously the crack didn't matter, and the camera is much nicer. Also, the Google Play store has an app called IP Webcam that is completely free and completely awesome. The application puts a big-ugly ad on the screen of the phone, but the remotely viewed video has no ads at all. I highly recommend using an old Android device instead of using an old iOS device, if you happen to have the choice. I mounted the phone on the inside of my office window using a suction-mount cradle designed for a car (Figure 2).

Figure 2. This suction cup is an improvement over my original "lean against the window" design.

Viewing

Both the iOS app and the Android app have a built-in Web server that allows for direct viewing of the video stream (Figures 3 and 4). The iOS application's interface is far less advanced than the free Android program, but they both allow for either viewing the mjpeg video stream or a real-time snapshot. With the Android application (which is what I focus on from here out, because it's free, Linux-based and far better), the resolution of the full-motion video is less than that of the photo snapshot.

Figure 3. The iOS Web interface is functional, but sparse.

Figure 4. The Android Webcam software is far more robust.

The built-in Web server on the phone is probably sufficient if you just want to watch from one or two computers on your network. For me, however, it wasn't enough. I wanted to view my bird feeders from multiple computers, both internal and on the Internet. I also wanted to be able to share my BirdCam with the world, but I wanted to serve everything myself, rather than depend on a service like Ustream. And, that's where things started to get really, really fun.

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Shawn Powers is a Linux Journal Associate Editor. You might find him on IRC, Twitter, or training IT pros at CBT Nuggets.