Thursday, December 26, 2013

Lake Spivey Webcam

If you know me then you'll know that I'm a reluctant officer in my HOA - Spivey Orchard Estates.  I use the word "reluctant" because I've been on the board for about 9 years.  Both my wife Susan and I got lassoed into service right after moving from Decatur.  Susan will tell you that I tend to buzz around with the attention span of a fly so 9 years is a long time.  I used to be a gopher for several years for another local community organization but that became no fun after members became too politically involved.  I'm out!  Then I decided to focus my laser-like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) efforts on the local bike club - Southern Crescent Cycling.  After two years as club secretary my tenure there is going to close at the annual meeting in January.  Now I can ride my bike and just have fun.

In mid-December I was at a Lake Spivey Civic Association (LSCA) board meeting.  My new obsession, much to my wife's dismay.  I run the association's newly formed Communications Committee.  There are other long standing committees, i.e. support, social, siltation, conservation, etc.  The Communications Committee is a new committee because it was pretty much created for me earlier in the year following the annual meeting in March.

As a new committee we have no budget.  In preparation for the upcoming budget cycle, I created a wish list of three things that I wanted to do in the coming year.  I've already done all the easy and/or free, or relatively easy/relatively free, stuff that I could think of.  My wishlist includes; 1) Purchasing a second Internet domain name.  The name I want to buy for the association is being held by a reseller so it could be expensive. 2) Install a time lapsed webcam of the lake. and 3) Create a professionally produced promotional video for the lake.  In total it's just over $9,400 estimated cost for these projects.  I know, that's a lot of money!

To further my cause, I created an e-mail detailing my plans.  I sent the e-mail out to all 500 LSCA members.  These were my big plans for the future of Lake Spivey.  I was gonna change the world.  Keep in mind that my budget has not been approved or even discussed by anyone except the voices in my head.  Over the course of the next few days I received several reply e-mails.  I believe two of them may have mentioned something about "big government".  I know that none of them embraced all three of my proposals whole-heartedly.  A few were supportive of one or the other of the three proposals.  That was encouraging.  So you're tellin' me there's a chance... (Dumb and Dumber - 1994)

Undaunted, and still without a budget, I set off to implement my plan.  I e-mailed a tentative offer to the domain reseller.  No news back on that yet!  That done for now, I then adjusted my focus on the webcam.  I just love the idea of being at work, or anywhere, going online to see what's happening at the lake right now.  This time of year not much is happening but it's hopping during the summer.

I was pretty sure that I could create a working prototype to show my neighbors for far less than I proposed in my budget.  I estimated the first year of use to cost almost $2,000 for equipment and services (electricity and Internet).  I found a time-lapsed camera setup online that was just what I was looking for.  A company called SebecTec in Maine was installing these type cameras around several local lakes.  The setup looks perfect for my needs.  They incorporated an inexpensive camera that produced a high-definition image every 60 seconds or so.  The SebecTec Webcam v3.6.3 software controls the camera, manages the image file, and adds weather data and optional text to the foreground of the image.  I bid on several used cameras on eBay.  The preferred camera was an older model Olympus SP-500uz.  After three attempts I finally had a winning bid of $51 plus $5 shipping and handling.  Since this camera would be on all the time I needed a power adapter too.  I needed to plug the camera into an AC power outlet instead of depending on batteries.  With eBay, $0.99 plus $5 shipping and handling, I had a used Olympus C-7AU AC adapter in a few days.
Olympus SP500uz Digital Camera
With the camera and adapter on-hand I now had to get these two components to do what I wanted.  The camera came with an Olympus Master software CD and USB cable.  I'd use both.  I had to use the Master software to upgrade the camera firmware to 1.2.  The process was pretty easy.  With the camera now up-to-date I set about getting the SebecTec time-lapsed software.  I downloaded a free 30-day evaluation copy.  The evaluation copy limits the image size to 640x480 which is fine for my test.  The licensed version allows 1920x1080 images.  This meets my long term needs.

With the camera, power adapter, special A/V USB cable, and time-lapsed software now on-hand I needed to get the camera to take a picture, and get that picture to load onto the laptop.  That was a real pickle.  I went all through the camera menu and instruction manual.  I couldn't find anything that even resembled "remote control"as described in the installation instructions on the SebecTec website.  Eventually I gave up and emailed Mike the SebecTec engineer.  He replied back in a few hours with this.  After removing the MicroSD card leave the card cover door open as you access the camera menu.  You're looking for USB control in the menu.  Once that is selected you can close the memory card door.

The next thing to do is connect the camera to the laptop via the USB cable and launch the time-lapsed webcam software.  I initially setup the software to take a picture every 60 seconds.  The images were getting to the laptop but how could I get them to a website?  I thought of several options but I finally decided on uploading the images to a Public folder on Dropbox and linking to the latest image on my destination website.  The latest image always has the same file name "olympusCam1".  The file name changes to the current "yyyymmddmmss" after the next olympusCam1 image is uploaded.  It took me about 24 hours before I figured out all the things I was doing wrong but I finally got it to work.

Lake Spivey Webcam Configuration
With everything working fine I decided to do a test.  How long would the camera run before it required intervention?  There were a lot of steps where something could go wrong.  I moved everything from the kitchen table, where I'd made camp for three days, to a spare bedroom.  I set up the camera to take pictures of my backyard.  At this point I configured the camera to take a picture every 5 minutes.  This would use less bandwidth and storage space. The image is sent to the laptop and stored.  A copy of the image is sent or synced to the Dropbox account Public folder.  The image is then available for viewing on the lake Spivey website.  The free Dropbox account only has 2GB of storage.  For $10 a month I can get 100GB of storage space.  That should be plenty of space to store several weeks of images before having to delete old images.

Camera Test Setup
Well, as luck would have it there was a brief power outage in my neighborhood early the next morning. Images stopped being posted online at 5:18AM.  All the lights at my house were out.  The router to my U-Verse Internet, and the Olympus SP-500uz camera with no batteries installed, lost power too.  The laptop has a battery so it continued to function.  The camera probably restored immediately after power was returned.  The SebecTec software has a restart application and a restart computer option.  Those were not selected.  That's why it's a test configuration!  The goal is to ensure that the camera works uninterrupted for several weeks at least.

The subject for the test will likely change. Currently, I've got the camera focused on my backyard.

When I finally had time to check the laptop I found that it had gone into hibernation mode.  All I did was press the power button, wait for the Wi-Fi to connect to my network, and click "start" on the SebecTec software.

I came to an epiphany as I was writing this blog.  My initial plan was to install a single camera on the lake for people to view.  Since I don't live on the water I needed someone who does live on the water to offer a location for the camera, power and access to the Internet.  I received an offer to provide this from my good friend Sally but I didn't want to be a burden.  I'd hate to have to call Sally everyday to ask her to start the software.  Not that it would be needed but, even a call once a month would be too much.  My epiphany was "Why limit the project to one camera?  What if other folks on the lake would install their own cameras and we had half a dozen cameras?"  All I should need to do is provide some guidance and before I know it cameras will pop up like irises in Griffin.  The Griffin, Georgia motto is "The Iris City".  An iris is one of those flowering bulb plants that you never see until it pops out of the ground.  I hope the information I've provided here leads to more cameras and irises.

As for my other two proposed budget items, who knows.  Maybe if save a little money on one project then I can use it on another.

Thanks for reading.