Monday, March 14, 2016

Converting a Drop Cam Pro into a nest cam





I had been eyeing the Drop Cam Pro since it first came out.  It seemed to be the darling of the online community and the reviews of the quality of the picture convinced me I should purchase one.  During Black Friday, www.woot.com had one on sale for $154.99 and I impulsively bought it.

The Drop Cam Pro was easy to setup and the quality of the camera did not disappoint.  The night vision was excellent and the motion detection software is much better than the standard passive infrared (PIR) sensors that most other systems use.

Despite all of these things, I eventually got to the point where I couldn't justify using the Drop Cam as part of my home monitoring network.  The monthly cost of $10.00 a month to auto record movement clips was just too hard for me to swallow.  Combine this with the fact the camera was limited to indoor use and required a wire for power and I had to look for other solutions.

This left me with an expensive live camera with really great lenses.  After some thought, I decided I was going to convert the Drop Cam into a nest cam.

The first step was to find a suitable location for my nest cam.  Each spring we have a few birds build nests on our front porch over our brick columns.  My hope was that if I built a bird house that fit on top of the columns and convinced my wife to let me keep it up there, a bird would turn it into a home.



I sat down and designed a simple house with a hole in the back to mount the drop cam and peek in on the hypothetical birds.  After some discussion with my daughter I realized it would be cooler if you could look down on the nest and changed the design to mount the camera on the roof.



Taking the rough sketches, I begin measuring and cutting and changing my design.  The first major change was that instead of mounting the camera inside the bird house, I decided to cut a hole in the top big enough for the front of the camera, but small enough to mount the camera in the ceiling without the standard mount.  This gave me more height in the bird house, but required me to build a small casing to cover the exposed back of the camera.  The hole was exactly 2 1/4 inches but I wish I had cut it at 2 1/2 inches.  As it was, I had to shave away some of the inside to get the camera to fit.



To accommodate the cord running to the camera, I cut a 1/2 inch hole which allowed me to slip the micro USB plug cleanly through it.  For the bird hole, I cut a 1 1/4 inch hole which should allow smaller birds, like wrens and blue birds, to nest in it.

The bird house isn't the most attractive design so I painted the entire thing white to blend in with the rest of the porch and prevent me from angering my wife too much.  After letting the paint dry, we mounted the house and did some wire management.

I changed my Nest account to public and now we just have to wait for a bird to take up residency.

Here's the link to view it live:

https://video.nest.com/live/A2Bk5z

If a bird or any living creature moves in I'll blog about it.  For now watch here for yourself.

Monday, February 29, 2016

How to hide the blue light on the Blink

If you read my earlier review on the Blink, then you saw one of my complaints was that whenever the Blink is recording, there is a bright blue light on the camera.  There is no way to turn the light off and this is on purpose according to Blink.  They state that the blue light is a security measure to prevent people from being recorded without their knowledge.

Although I certainly understand and respect people's right to privacy, for my purposes I don't want to draw attention to the camera so an intruder doesn't know it is there and decides to remove it.  My camera is outside on my porch not somewhere creepy like the bathroom.

So I decided to figure out a way to disable the blue light.

The easiest option is to just cover the light from the outside. There may be some ambient light, but tape or something should do the job.  However, this makes the camera look pretty crappy and the OCD part of me wanted a neater solution.

Warning:  ATTEMPTING THIS COULD BREAK YOUR CAMERA OR VOID YOUR WARRANTY.  I TAKE NO RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE ACCURACY OF THESE DIRECTIONS. ATTEMPT AT YOUR RISK.

So I disassembled the camera.




The first step is to remove the battery cover.  This is done by sliding the button on the bottom of the camera and lifting up on the lid.  Being careful not to break the plastic catches, pull the lid loose from the camera.

Pull out the batteries if they're already in there.

The battery holder is the piece of plastic with the Serial Number on it.  Using a very small flat head screw driver or your finger nails, gently separate it from the back case.  In the picture above you can see how they're two separate pieces.  The springs for the batteries will slide out of the plastic battery holder and stay with the back case.

Once the plastic battery holder is out, you're presented with a circuit board, 4 screws and a small metal clip.  The metal clip is connecting the top circuit board to the bottom circuit board. Gently push it off the top circuit board making sure you don't bend it or lose it.  The metal clip looks like this:



And can be found near the top right hand screw shown here:



After the clip is off, remove the four small Phillips head screws.  Gently pry out the top circuit board.

The bottom circuit board is held in place by two screws.  You'll have to unscrew them because you need to reach the Blue LED on the other side.  Again, gently wedge out the bottom circuit board and turn it over.  It should look like the image below.



Taking a small piece of electrical tape, cover the small metal piece labeled D5. It probably wouldn't hurt to cover D6 and D4.  I believe each of these are LEDs. D2 is the LED for the low light recording and you should not cover it or accidentally remove it like I did.



Once the D5 is covered, begin putting everything back.  The tape should be face down into the plastic back. Screw it in.

Replace the top circuit board. Screw it in.  Gently place the metal clip back on the metal film on the circuit board.  I placed mine on the bottom first and then pushed it over the top. It should latch on.

Once all of the circuit boards are in place, replace the plastic battery holder.  Pull the springs for the battery through the holes in the plastic batter holder and then push down. It'll all snap into place.

Replace your batteries, put on the back cover and you should be done.

Now you have a Blink that will record without the blue light.  If you ever want the light back for some reason, just remove the tape.



Feel free to ask me questions in the comments and I might try a video of the process later.

Edit:  Video here

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Political Feedback System

A website that allows users to register their zip code and political affiliation.

An unbiased summary of bills being discussed are listed with a link to the actual bill.
Each user has the ability to rate the bill in the following manner:

1. Don't care
2. Like
3. Hate
4. Like enough to vote for you again
5. Hate enough to vote against you

Bills are tagged with the supporting or dissenting representatives.
Each user is give their representative's contact information, which bills they are sponsoring, and their vote history.

Aggregated results of votes are on display.

Comments are also available, including anonymous.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Blink Home Monitoring System Review

After researching a number of different options, I recently purchased the Blink surveillance system to monitor my home.  So far I like the system, but it does have some drawbacks.

Pros:

  • Price
  • Completely wireless
  • Easy to setup
  • Online and local storage
  • Decent camera quality


Cons:

  • Motion sensor won't see through glass
  • No night vision
  • No stealth mode
  • Phone App required to setup and use


PROS

Price: I paid $190 for 3 cameras and the sync module, including shipping.  For comparison, a single Dropcam cost roughly the same without shipping included.  In addition to the low startup price, Blink offers online storage and access at no additional cost.  The Dropcam charges $100 a year or $10/month for ten days of constant online storage.  The low cost and no monthly fees are a huge positive for the Blink.

Completely Wireless: If the price is the best part of the Blink, then it being wireless is the second best attribute.  The Blink operates on 2 AA batteries and is supposed to work for a year without having to change the batteries.  Because the batteries are standard, even if you have to change them every 6 months, it is not a big deal.  For comparisons, the ARLO wireless camera takes special CR 123 lithium batteries which can be much more expensive and do not last as long.
There are no wires for power or video, so you can place these cameras almost anywhere.  They come with a mounting base, screw and sticky pad to allow you to mount them how and where you want. The cameras have to be able to communicate with the sync module, which can sit up to 100 ft. away.  I have mine about 30 ft away past a thick wall and I still have good connectivity.

Easy to Setup: Setting up the cameras takes only 3 easy steps according to the directions.  Personally it took me a few extra steps, but it was still not that difficult. The hardest part was figuring out I had to connect my phone to the sync module at the beginning.  The sync module puts out a wifi signal and you have to connect to it with your phone app.  Once you have done this and setup the sync module, then adding cameras is easy and straight forward.  Because the cameras are wireless, setting them up where you want is easy as well.  It took me maybe 30 minutes to completely set it up and that was taking my time.

Online and Local Storage: The Blink stores video clips and pictures online on their own servers. This allows you to access the feeds from anywhere with your phone. It also has an option to plug in a hard drive and store images locally. I have not tried this option yet, so I don't know how well it works, but it is good to have the option.  There is plenty of free space online, but if your internet connection goes out for some reason then you'll still record.  For households like mine with busy network traffic and the occasional outage, this is very handy.

Decent Camera Quality: The Blink records at 720p hd, but not all 720p are created equally.  The quality of the lenses can make a big difference.  The Dropcam offers a superior picture in my opinion, but that doesn't mean the Blink is bad.  You can still make out details from a distance, just not as well.  But camera quality is like bandwidth, you can never have enough.


CONS

Motion sensor won't see through glass:  This is a con for me, but may not be a big deal for you.  I wanted to monitor activity outside through my glass doors. However the Blink uses a passive infrared sensor to determine motion.  This means it cannot see through glass.  In comparison the dropcam uses sophisticated software to monitor actual motion and will monitor through glass.  This and the fact the Blink isn't a weather proof camera is a major limitation for me.


No night vision: The Blink uses a low light sensor and an actual light to monitor in the dark. This means the image at night is not very clear and you can't see very far.  It also means a noticeable light comes on when the motion detection is activated.


No stealth mode: There could be a way to disable the blue light that comes on when the Blink is recording, but I have not found it yet.  When the Blink is active, a bright blue light shines letting people know it is recording.  This is fine unless you don't want to draw attention to the camera and the placement of the camera.  It's not a huge negative, but it does mean that any trespasser would know immediately they had been recorded and will probably hunt for the system.


Phone App required to setup and use: I have an iPhone so using apps isn't a big deal for me, but I did think it was odd that there was no way to setup the Blink with just a computer.  Neither can you use a computer to monitor the Blink or view video.


Summary:  Overall the Blink is a great system and one I would recommend.  The price and the convenience from it being completely wireless are huge advantages over other systems and outweigh the negatives.  I'm actually trying one of the cameras outside to see how well it holds up over time.  So far so good.  Feel free to ask me any questions in the comments and watch my videos on setup and un-boxing.