Microsoft webcam tool makes a good, low-cost watchdog

John McCormick

1984 is long past, and surveillance freaks still haven't had their chance to watch everyone all the time. But webcams are cheap enough to post over parking lots and employee snack areas. Trouble is, watching an unchanging image gets boring. What you want is a way for your computer to notify you when something happens, such as someone snagging the last doughnut.

A $22 Microsoft Windows utility called Eyes-N-Ears, downloadable from Integration Technologies Inc. at www.intech2.com/intech2.html, monitors webcam images and takes a user-selected action when anything changes.

This low-cost surveillance tool isn't limited to watching people. Its best uses probably are monitoring mechanical events or natural things such as dams, rivers and wildlife.

A combination of cheap webcams and Eyes-N-Ears could stretch a surveillance budget to monitor a dozen sites instead of just one or two with higher-end systems. Don't dismiss this low-cost option as a toy. Eyes-N-Ears is a sophisticated tool that can schedule its active times. You can mark a specific part of the image, such as a doorway, where the motion sensor operates. That helps eliminate the false alarms that are the biggest drawback of remote monitoring.

Room with a view

Image quality depends on the camera and video card you choose, not the monitoring software. There is no need to limit quality to the fuzzy images from low-end webcams.

Eyes-N-Ears can take a snapshot whenever it detects a change in the specified area of an image or detects a sound above a specified level. Time-lapse image capture can automatically record an image at chosen intervals. Once the software is triggered, you can have it store the image to a local disk or send it over the Web as an e-mail attachment or File Transfer Protocol send. Some e-mail services even allow beeper notification.

If you think Eyes-N-Ears could automate a task around your office, check it out free with a time-limited download before buying. I've found it cheaper than the professional alternative of a $100 sensor, suction-cupped to a monitor to trigger the start of a video recording or set to alarm other equipment.

A mouse is useful for lots of things, but many people are more productive when they don't have to take their hands away from the keyboard. Behavior Tech Computer Corp. of Fremont, Calif., at www.btcusa.com, recently sent me a keyboard with 14 dedicated function keys and an audio knob to access the Web, turn the PC off or control CD audio.''

None of this is new. I use a Compaq Computer Corp. keyboard with integrated speaker and audio volume control, and Compaq also makes keyboards with instant Web and e-mail buttons. The Apple Macintosh has had keyboard on-off power for years. I've used workstations with up to 20 special function keys. But what if your computer doesn't support such handy features?

For less than $30, the Behavior Tech 9000 keyboard can add many or all of them to an office PC. The setup CD-ROM helps you configure the special features for your PC. Not all features, particularly power management tools, will work on all PCs, however.

The standard keyboard has good key response and a flexible, snap-on wrist rest. It seemed flimsy at first, but once I snapped it in place I found it very useful, even when holding the keyboard on my lap.

The company said the keyboard has an ergonomic, curved-radius design. I have
no idea what that means, but I did find it very comfortable. The accessory buttons arranged along the top include three Internet hot keys to launch a browser, begin a search or go to a favorite page.

If you run Windows 98 on your PC, the keyboard's Advanced Configuration and Power Interface supplies Power Off, Sleep and Wake Up buttons, too. Multimedia controls include a click-stop volume knob and a separate mute button for existing sound cards and speakers. ''

If you need a replacement keyboard or simply prefer buttons to mice, take a look at the Behavior Tech 9000.

John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at poweruser@mail.usa.com.

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