Hands-On: Wireless Video Surveillance System

There is no end to low-end networked camera systems to choose from, but today I have one that is rather different and quite clever though it is also rather disappointing: The Vuezone Personal Video Network developed by Avaak.

The system includes an ovoid shaped base station and one or two cameras depending on the package you purchase ($200 and $300 respectively, and additional cameras are $100 each).

<rant>I must digress for a second to ponder why hardware manufacturers produce these oddly shaped utility devices. There are few small offices or houses that are so geeky and hip they'd want a device of this shape with its blinking lights on display. You can't hang the base station on a wall, and if you're going to put it in a cupboard or enclosure you can only put it on top of a stack of other gear.

This is getting ridiculous: Just consider the gear you already have. You've probably got a DSL or cable modem, maybe a Wi-Fi access point, a netgwork-attached storage server, a router and or a hub … quite a little collection. The problem is that none of the devices are designed for stacking and some of them, like the Vuezone base station, aren't even cuboid. In the big boy's IT world we have 19 inch racks and physical standards for the gear that goes in them … why is there no such thing for SoHo and consumer devices?</rant>

The cameras are physically sort of squashed ovoid shaped versions of the base station and have an extension on the back that magnetically sticks to the provided hemispherical camera mounts. This makes them very easy to mount, orient and unmount but I found them tricky to position to show the view I wanted.

What's unusual about this system is the cameras are powered by batteries so they are truly wireless. The wireless links are not Wi-Fi, but rather a proprietary system that is supposed to support distances up to 300 feet.

The battery provides a viewing time of about 30 hours. The Avaak site claims the batteries are good for about a year under "normal use" (which the small print notes is five minutes per day).

The cameras are good but not great. They aren't suitable for outdoor use, there's no audio support, the automatic exposure feature doesn't work well, color fidelity is poor, the frame rate appears to be about 10 frames per second at best, and the field of view is only 60 degrees which is too narrow for general purposes.

The base station has a power adapter and an Ethernet connection and requires an Internet connection to function. After you plug your base station into your network you go to myvuezone.com, create an account, and register the base station's ID number (an account can support up to three base stations and 50 cameras).

The online control panel shows a thumbnail of the last view and name of each camera (which you can change) in a panel titled "My Cameras". To enable viewing of one or more cameras you drag the thumbnails on to another panel in the user interface titled "My Vue" which loads a Flash video player for each camera. You then click on the video player's play button to watch the live stream but, oddly, you can't watch more than one stream at a time even though multiple users can be watching any or all of your cameras simultaneously.

What happens in the background is the base station has figured out how to connect through your network to the Avaak server and when a user asks to view a camera it enables that camera, which then streams the video to the server. The server, in turn, resends the video to the requesting client-side Flash player.

There is no local direct viewing or recording of cameras as all communications have to be routed through the Avaak server. This limitation is hard to understand unless you consider that Avaak provides the first year of service free and then charges $19.95 for subsequent use. If your Internet service is down or you don't pay (or should Avaak ever go out of business) your video surveillance system becomes toast.

You can record video which is retained on the Avaak server (you are given 2GB of storage) where it can be viewed, downloaded, or shared via e-mail, Flickr and YouTube (but, weirdly, there's no Facebook or Twitter support).

You can schedule recording of any camera for still images, time lapse, or videos but only one schedule per camera is supported and there's no record on movement detected feature.

With the scheduled recording I also encountered a really dumb bug: When a recording on one camera was in progress all cameras on the account became unavailable and there's no way to stop this! Really? Am I the first person to discover this? And why should recording preclude streaming?

You can view your cameras and recordings not only on a regular Web browser (IE, Firefox, and Safari are supported) but also by using Avaak's iPhone or BlackBerry applications. Android support is promised.

Other people can be invited to view any or all of your cameras. This requires a somewhat clumsy process of entering the invitee's name and e-mail address after which they receive an invitation e-mail. The invitee then has to register on the myvuezone site supplying the same details you've already supplied.

I don't have enough space to slice and dice the issues of the user interface any further but suffice it to say that having been on the market for a year and at the product's price point, I would have expected something a little more polished by now.

Also, why no API? What a huge opportunity to miss! All of those social networking connections that aren't supported could be easily added by third parties and there is certainly opportunity for novel applications and features that Avaak hasn't thought of.

There are some clever ideas in this system but I think it's rather costly for what it delivers or, rather, doesn't. I'm surprised this product has garnered such rave reviews. I guess the standards are a little higher here in the Gearhead labs. I'll give Avaak Vuezone Personal Video Network a rating of 3 out 5.

Gibbs is on view in Ventura, Calif. Tell him what you see at gearhead@gibbs.com.

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