Sunday, February 1, 2015

Tech Story - Old Cellphones as wireless roaming webcams? Possible if "old" = almost new!

Our webcast experiments got me thinking about accessible webcasting cameras. "Real" video cameras are impossible or difficult to get to act as webcams. Conventional webcams are very limited.

Searching for answers leads me to this article:
Author Ryan Dube suggests using old cellphones as webcams.  For us, advantages could include a viewfinder for a roving camera operator and wireless connection to the base PC over wi-fi.  Productive use of old phones has philosophical appeal.

This led me to a long journey through many options. Hopefully with these notes I can save this time for someone else.

Best solution I found: Android App "IP Webcam" by Pavel Khlebovich.  Here is what you need to know so you can get there faster than I did!

App Info does not say what version of Android we need.  It only says "Varies with device".  I succeeded with an LG E400f with Android 2.3.6. I lost lots of time trying to get the Google "Play/Market" app providers  to work for older phones with Android 2.2 or 2.1 - only to then discover that "IP Webcam" was not available for them.

Note that while running,  "IP Webcam" has 2 versions of its network address and we need to choose the right one for what we want to do on the base PC.
In my case I see this version displayed on the phone:
I enter this in a browser on the base PC and I find that the phone now has its own mini website with a monitor window and lots of controls and information.  Good quick test and possibly useful for security surveillance.
The alternative version looks like this:
I need to add suffix "/videofeed" to the basic address to setup my  PC "feed receiving" software.
In this "ManyCam" screenshot, the small thumbnails are video from the PC webcam and the cellphone.  The cellphone feed is switched to the main output screen.

In this "ManyCam" screenshot, the small thumbnails are video from the PC webcam and the cellphone.  The cellphone feed is switched to the main output screen.(click on image to enlarge)

"IP Camera Adapter" is a free download from
"IP Camera Adapter" receives the "signal" from your IP Webcam Phone and translates it into  a "virtual webcam" which means it becomes available to apps like "Skype" .

Screenshot of an LG E400f cellphone with "IP Webcam" feeding video to Skype via "IP Camera Adapter".  The Adapter appears in Skype as option "MJPEG Camera". (click on image to enlarge)


Other trials:  I have an old Windows 7 phone.  I found 2 apps for that.

"Cam Broadcaster" by Venetasoft, NZD 1.50,  comes with a downloadable PC "Venatasoft WP Console" app as part of the package.  It is monitor-only ie I could not find a "virtual webcam" capability.  I did find I could get remarkably good results by using "ManyCam" to "screen-scrape" the video from the console window.  My base PC has 2 screens which gives me enough space to leave the console window clear for such workaround trickery.

"PocketCam" by Senstic, NZD 7.00 (approx. USD 5.00) also comes with a custom download, Senstic  "PocketControl" receiver,  for the base PC.  I did achieve "virtual webcam" capability with my setup but at a slow frame rate of about 3 fps.  I prefer "Cam Broadcaster" because I can get a better result for what I want and I am OK with the workaround setup needed.

I recommend "IP Webcam" as a clear winner for most of you reading this.

For me it may be Venatasoft "Cam Broadcaster"  for the near future to go with my available phone.   A screen-scraped "Cam Broadcaster" lets me record or webcast in my preferred widescreen image format of 640 x 360.

To move to "IP Webcam", I need to go hunting in web auctions for a low cost Android phone with Android version 2.3.6 or above and widescreen video - which probably means 1280 x 720.


Other notes.

A helpful discovery.
You do not need a SIM card.  All this will work just as well, or just as badly, treating the phone as a non-phone wifi camera gadget.  When I was having  app market/play/store problems one of my ideas was to borrow a SIM card and get the phone working as a phone to see if that would make any difference.  No. Makes no difference.

Security considerations
In my case, a phone in this role needs to be lent out to students and various volunteer film-making helpers.  It needs to be safe from accidental messing -up.  Unfortunately on going to remove the Google Account from an Android Phone I get dire warnings that this will erase everything. What I therefore do is run an organisational Google  Account for Android experimentation.  Then when I have the apps on the phone I shut down the phone - then I get into my PC regular internet browser, login to Google and change the password.  This effectively kills account operations on the phone.  The phone may do some complaining popup messages but just ignore it.

Comment on the Ideal of reuse of old phones.
Nice idea but in practice you need a reasonably new phone for this kind of experimentation else you get lost in the swamp of reduced support and interest for old phone apps.   I also ran into problems with older phones and the app provider systems - which have names like "Market", "MarketPlace", "Play" and "Store". eg  Android apps which fail to download and install with messages like " Error while retrieving information from server [RPC: S-7: AEC-0]".  I did Google searches on this and read a lot of forum advice which did not work for me - (eg  try setting up another account).  Choose your old unwanted phone carefully - not too old!

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