A watchful eye at home
Security is one of the main application areas of "smart home" technology. How do standalone, off-the-shelf security cameras live up to the challenge?
The first gadgets I got to review as part of our Gadget Weeks project were two surveillance, or, to use the slightly less off-putting term, “home security” cameras. Now, to a few of us who have read a certain novel by George Orwell, home surveillance doesn’t evoke particularly positive connotations. I reckon most people would be at least to some degree cautious about having an all-seeing eye at home.
However, security is a principal constituent of people’s notion of a “smart home”. It turns out that 90% of consumers say security is one of the top reasons to purchase a smart home system (something that you can read in icontrol’s interesting report here). A visual component undoubtedly adds value to a security system. Additionally, it could help keep in touch with whatever is happening back home, for those who have to spend much time away from it. Hence, the question arising is whether smart security cameras can be effective at these tasks without being intrusive, also taking into account the fact that the cost of such a camera alone (a bit more than CHF 200) is comparable to that of some smart home hubs on the market, equipped with motion sensors and contact sensors (to mount on doors/windows and detect when they are opened).
In the following part, I address this question by summarizing my impressions of two smart security cameras I evaluated, the Logi Circle by Logitech and the Welcome by Netatmo. If you are interested in a more concise and point-by-point overview, including specifications and features, please have a look at the respective test reports: Logitech Circle Report, Netatmo Welcome Report
The Logi Circle is a wireless camera, capable of streaming live HD 720p video and audio over Wi-Fi to a mobile app (Android / iOS). It has a battery which can power it up for up to 3 hours in normal mode, or 12 hours in power-saving mode (in which the camera only streams upon request, i.e. when the app is open).
The first thing that strikes someone about the Logi Circle is its sleek and functional design, comprising a sphere interlocking with a disc base, which grants it the capability of a 360° pan and a 110° tilt. It can also be mounted on walls with the help of a disc-shaped wall mount, to which it magnetically attaches. Combined with its small size and weight (about 7.5 cm height and 200 g weight) and of course the fact that it has a battery, this means that it can be detached and moved elsewhere at anytime, rendering this camera entirely portable. The flexibility in positioning is complemented by the very wide field of view of the lens (135°) and the sensitive microphone, which provide very good coverage, allowing the Circle to monitor large spaces and even wide areas like back yards. Every aspect of the design seems to be carefully considered, including the charging/power connection: a flat band USB cable ends in a ring-shaped connector, which is interposed between the camera and the base/wall mount.
Despite the noticeable barrel distortion caused by the wide angle of the lens, the video and audio are of very high quality, while night vision (infrared), seamlessly activated by the camera when there is a need to, as well as 8x digital zoom, are also available.
The basic characteristic feature of Circle is its capability of automatically detecting potentially interesting activity and distinguishing it both from static scenes, as well as repetitive, uninformative motion, such as a rotating fan. This allows the device to selectively push a notification to the user’s mobile app only in the case of truly important activity, such as a thief breaking in, or, even more importantly, a cat doing something funny instead of just sleeping. Thanks to cloud storage, from anywhere in the world, the user can browse through all video clips of the last 24 hours which Circle marked as important, by scrolling over a column of corresponding time-stamps on the right edge of the screen and subsequently view and download any of them.
In addition, a 30 second video summary of important events of the day, called a “day brief”, can be generated on demand at any time. This feature, combined with the snapshots shown when scrolling over the “bookmarks” of the day, provide a very good overview of the day and eliminate the need of having to watch through empty footage.
As an example, here is the 30 seconds summary of the Gadget Weeks inauguration event, from the point I remembered to activate the camera, where you can see many people examining and playing around with various gadgets, up to the clean-up that followed the event and Abi taking a rest at the end of a tough day:
Due to a built-in speaker, the Circle also supports bidirectional, live chat. This could come in handy in several situations, for example in order to ask a child about their day as soon as they come back from school, yell at an unruly pet which considered your absence a great opportunity to commit mischief of any kind, or to politely ask a burglar not to make a mess in the living room when searching for your valuables.
Another defining characteristic of Logi Circle is its simplicity of use. Setting it up takes a few minutes, while the main options available to the user are turning on and off the camera, the microphone and the push notifications. At the same time, these also happen to be the only options available (ok, with the exception of one or two additional secondary on-off options like power-saving mode). While this simplicity might be appreciated by some, it does limit the camera’s functionality and it forbids any customization of its behavior. Also, it hardly justifies the fact that the camera is only accessible over a mobile app interface and there is no web app or program which can be installed on laptop / desktop computers to access it. Given its nice hardware (let alone its price tag), it is also unfortunate that it can’t be used as a conventional webcam either. And of course, abandon all hope with respect to integrating it into an already existing home automation or security hub. The Logi Circle is a lonesome vigilante.
The Logi Circle delivers what it promises: it lets the user keep in touch with their houshold; interesting activities of babies/children or pets will not be missed while away from home. At the same time, it offers basic security functionality, notifying the user of unwanted and/or illicit activities. Its simple interface and automated function makes it usable by anyone, while its performance is solid. However, the lack of customizable behavior (for example setting rules taking into account the time of day) and the fact that it can only be used as a standalone product, somewhat limit its value-for-money.
Netatmo, the manufacturers of such delightful smart home products as the Weather Station (which we proudly own and use at our smart home) and the Thermostat, have opted for a low-profile design for the Welcome, one that doesn’t scream “I am a security camera” from miles away. And it’s a good thing they did, because given the latency in the notifications sent to the user when motion is detected, a perceptive intruder would have been able to rush and take it offline before it would have ever had the chance to notify the blissful homeowner. How could it be taken offline? By disconnecting its Micro-USB power cable, for one, as this device does not have a battery. Nor can it be fixed on walls/ceilings, it’s simply a cylinder that needs to be placed at an appropriate height which will allow it to monitor the room, preferably looking towards the entrance.
And this is just about where the shortcomings of Welcome stop. For, you see, Welcome is a HD 1080p video/audio streaming smart security camera which stands out from the competition. Sure, it includes local microSD card storage (8 GB up to 32 GB), which enables it to record videos even without internet connection, overwriting the oldest video clips when the maximum storage capacity is reached. Stored clips may be viewed and downloaded via Wi-Fi either by means of a mobile app (Android / iOS) or a web app. Also, it has a 130° field of view and it makes use of night vision (infrared) when the lighting conditions dictate so. However, what differentiates Welcome is the unique ability to detect and recognize faces, a powerful feature which significantly ameliorates and to a great extent defines its functionality.
Up to 16 different faces can be registered with Welcome, with all others considered “unknown”. In the beginning, all faces start as unknown, but users may identify the faces that Welcome keeps detecting and map them to specific profiles, thus gradually training the face recognition algorithm. The more face pics associated with a profile/person, the better Welcome becomes at recognizing this person. Now, I happen to be somewhat familiar with machine learning and face recognition is not an easy problem, especially considering that people don’t actually pose for these pics; instead, their faces are immortalized in any possible distance, orientation and lighting. I have to say I was genuinely impressed by the performance of Welcome’s face recognition algorithm. Provided that you provide enough samples of face pics under different conditions (e.g. also in night vision mode or in profile), Welcome will successfully recognize registered faces, with a tendency to err on the side of caution, i.e. “false negatives”, meaning that it will declare a face unknown if it’s not confident enough about the identity of the person. For security considerations, this is a desirable behavior (it’s better to falsely alarm you of the intrusion of a legitimate resident, rather than heartily welcome a burglar).
What’s the use of distinguishing between faces? In a word, customization. When motion is detected or a face is detected, a video clip may be recorded and a notification may be sent. The user may then use the mobile app or the web app (which, by the way, is integrated as a tab in the same web app used to monitor our Weather Station and the Thermostat, if we had one) to view the recorded activity by selecting the corresponding time-stamp.
However, notifications are sent to the user based on individualized settings with respect to specific persons (but also other conditions, such as time). For example, one (despite the temptation) can choose neither to be notified of the presence nor record the activity of an adolescent child, but contrarily enable notifications for the youngest child after his or her bedtime. Furthermore, based on when they were last seen or the location of their mobile phones, Welcome keeps track of who is at home at any time. This means that when you return home, you are greeted by a “Welcome home” notification and then you are left in peace. It also means that you may be notified of a detected motion or the presence of a stranger only when there is no registered person at home , so you don’t have to be bothered every time a visitor comes home.
What makes Welcome even more appealing is the fact that it can become part of an already existing home automation or security hub. This integration may vastly enhance its functionality and can happen on different levels. The easiest and most immediate solution is using “if-this-then-that” recipes on IFTTT. For example, I have set a rule to turn all the lights (Philips Hue) in the house red in case an unknown face is detected. Imagine the reaction of a burglar if something like this happened as he broke in! (I guess he would probably be slightly less annoyed than my flatmates are every time someone is misidentified.) More advanced home automation functionality can be achieved by using the available openHAB Netatmo bindings. Depending on who returned home, openHAB would then be able to play a specific radio station on our sound system, while setting an appropriate lighting scene. Lastly, there is a Netatmo REST API available to software developers for any application they might have in mind, so imagination is really the limit.
The cherry on the cake is the fact that Welcome can also recognize audio patterns of alarms, such as a smoke alarm beeping in the kitchen or the siren of an alarm of a completely independent security system in place, and promptly notify the user wherever he or she might be, adding an additional, acoustic level of integration. I have tested this function by playing youtube clips of alarm sound effects from my phone and it seemed to work fine 🙂
So, how does Welcome perform as a WiFi camera? Well, does it matter? Pretty much fine, I suppose… I guess one might complain about the very long live feed delay in case of a congested or weak Wi-Fi connection. Adding digital zoom and the possibility to use it as a conventional webcam wouldn’t hurt either. Also, in spite of the fact that the video resolution is supposed to be 1080p, in all honesty I can’t say that the difference compared with the 720p resolution of the Logi Circle is pronounced, although there is certainly less image distortion. Because beauty is in the eye of the beholder (that’s the name of our camera, incidentally), have a glimpse yourselves at a recording of the first part of the Gadget Weeks inauguration event (which I missed in the Logi Circle recording), a talk by the developers of one of the gadgets we are evaluating:
Spying on your loved ones has never been so fun! Netatmo Welcome’s unique capability of recognizing faces provides the possibility of customizing and targeting recordings and notifications and while probably not a complete security system on its own, it can definitely bring added value to both security and home automation hubs.