On my original gadget blog about the Dropcam this January, I said "This is the last weather cam / security cam / webcam you'll ever need to buy!" Well, great minds think alike. Google's Nest has recently acquired Dropcam for a reported $555 million. I look forward to seeing how the Dropcam products evolve under the Nest umbrella, powered by Google.
Since testing the Dropcams over the past six months as a weather (and home security) monitoring device, I've found that there are three enhancements (hacks, if you will) that you may desire:
1. You may need to permanently disconnect the microphone (audio) from inside the Dropcam. The teardowns here show you how to do this, on both the Dropcam and Dropcam Pro models.
2. You may want to mount it inside a box to avoid reflections (from both outside and inside). Below, I illustrate a low-cost method to do this.
3. You may want to retrieve a static JPG, for showcasing your weather webcam on the Internet, or just want to save a still image. I'll illustrate how to do this using UNIX Perl LWP.
DISCLAIMER: These instructions will probably void your warranty, and I make no warranty that these instructions will work.
1. DISABLING THE MIC: For my purposes, It wasn't good enough to have the software setting changed on Dropcam.com, I needed to be sure that conversations couldn't be overheard before I could get the cam in conference rooms or offices at AccuWeather, and I didn't particularly want a microphone in my bedroom either :) Fortunately, the microphone is relatively easy to disconnect, and it won't affect the video operation of the Dropcam. This trick will also work if you suffer from conspiracy fears that Google will listen to what's going on in your home.
First we'll look at the Dropcam Pro -- which has an entirely different circuit board than the original Dropcam, and the mic is much easier to "unplug" on the Pro unit. After you take out the tiny screws, be careful to separate the circuit board partially from the back of the unit as shown below, but don't separate the camera's front from the circuit board! You'll see a plug (behind the USB connector) for the mic wire (red & black) which you can simply unplug.
If you're not careful and remove the front of the camera mount from the circuit board instead, as shown below, you'll go insane trying to reconnect (push in) the WiFi antenna cable back to the circuit board while trying to put the whole thing back together.
The original Dropcam is easier to disassemble -- when you separate the two halves, the wifi antenna doesn't disconnect. To locate the microphone, look for the hole on the side of the case. The microphone is wired directly into the circuit board; you can see it once you remove the rubber casing around the hole.
I used a soldering iron to remove the mic by melting both the contact wires, but I suppose you could also clip them. In any case, once you do, put the camera back together and power up. Voila, you now have a mic-less Dropcam with no other reduced functionality.
2. REFLECTION-FREE INSIDE MOUNT: Any webcam sitting in your window pointed outside will have reflections of your blinds or whatever's behind them, both from sunlight from the outside, and lights from the inside of your house). This is not only annoying, but can be a security hazard and can mess up your motion recording (and again, there's that conspiracy theory that Google is watching your every move). The thing about the Dropcam is that its field of view is so wide that most of the picture ends up to be reflections in bad lighting situations. Here's an example, where my white inside blinds are reflecting (you can see the outline of the black Dropcam where there are no reflections), and in the comparison, how this mount solved the problem:
Because of that wide angle, the optimum box would be nearly as large as your average household window. I tried a number of different sized AkroBins (I like them better than other plastic boxes because they are sturdy and have an opening at the top which allows the cable to string through, and it will fit snugly up against your top windowpane).
I ended up settling on this one, which is about 7x4x11inches. Good news: It's only $2 plus shipping. You don't have to use this specific box, but if you go deeper than 4 inches, you can't hide it behind your blinds, and this will be fine for a straight-out-the-window view. If you point your Dropcam down to see the ground, the box will still get in the way a little, but for me that's still worth the benefit of not having the reflections.
There's only one problem... the blue box causes blue reflections itself. This can be rectified by painting the AkroBin (I recommend black on the inside, to avoid reflections, and white/beige on the outside so it doesn't look so odd from the inside of your house. Be careful what kind of paint you use; although I used a spray paint that was made for plastic, it gave off a lot of fumes when the sun heated the window, and it melted/flaked off at any pressure points.
Once the box is painted and has dried, drill two small holes in the middle of the top (slanted end) of the Akro bin. You can screw the camera base on here, though I simply used twist-ties.
Insert the Dropcam into its mount, then snake the cord (which I also recommend painting black) out the top of the box. Now you're ready to mount it in your window!
I recommend mounting the DropCam upside-down to the inside top of your window sill (you can tell the software to flip the image). This keeps the camera from interrupting your view out the window (even if you're not using the box mount), and gives it a much better place to secure it than halfway up, which was probably your first thought.
My first original idea for mounting the box was to use velcro on the top of the box, but due to the problems I had with the paint, this turned out to not be sufficient to keep it from falling down behind the blinds. If you're lucky, you can wedge it up there with your blinds; you could probably also screw it in, depending on what your window sills are like, but that makes it hard to take down for maintenance; in the end, I rested the bottom of the box on suction cups.
3. SAVING A STATIC JPG IMAGE: This is a frequently asked question on the Dropcam Feature Requests page, if for no other reason than it has historically been something that webcams have had, as a standard. It will no doubt be available eventually from their Developer API in the future.
Meanwhile, if you want to save off a static JPG, just do it. The functionality is already there when you log into your Dropcam account... if you have the "My Cameras" page in your navigation. If you don't (if you only have one camera it won't appear), follow these instructions to "follow" at least one other Featured Dropcam:
Now you'll have the "My Cameras" page in your navigation. Click on that, and you'll see an image from your Dropcam pop up quickly in miniature. This is your static JPG! To find the URL to it, view the source of the page and looks for "nexusapi." The link will look something like this:
If you click that, you'll see a thumbnail of my cam. The URL includes the "uuid" or camera ID, plus the width of the image. You can make this width whatever you want (try it out!) but the native resolution of the dropcams (as of this writing) is 1280 wide. Now, just save the image in your browser to your desktop.
Now for the next "if." If you're going to try to retrieve or display this image from outside of the current browser that you're in (for example, on your website), you'll need to make your Dropcam public (which you'd want to do anyway, if you want to run a weather cam on your website). If your camera is not public, follow these steps to make it public:
One example of what you could do with this static JPG link is this: Once a day, I have a UNIX machine that powers my website download the JPG (via Perl LWP) and store it with today's date. Then, I can access an archive of them, or even animate a month's worth of daily images. Same goes for the past 24 hours - I save off one every 5 minutes (using these commands). This allows you to have some idea of what happened on your Dropcam, even if you can't afford their cloud service which stores the real-time video (but trust me, you'll want that).
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