My View of the Vue Personal Video Network Wireless Camera System

Back in February, I met with some very smart folks from a San Diego-based company called Avaak. They were demonstrating a wireless camera system meant for remote video monitoring. What impressed me the most about the technology behind the wireless camera system is that it used a mesh network, which is based on technology that the company originally designed for DARPA. Some of the same folks behind this new wireless camera system also designed the PillCam. I did say they were smart, right? You can see the news story I originally wrote up about the technology here.

Fast-forward to a few weeks ago and the technology they were demonstrating finally made its public debut in the form of the Vue Personal Video Network. The Vue comes with two wireless cameras, four camera mounts, and a wireless gateway device. The cameras are very small and light--measuring 2.9x1.0x2.1-inches and weighing only 28-grams (0.98 ounces) without batteries (each wireless camera uses a Lithium-Ion CR123 photo battery, of which two are included.) The kit sells for $299.99, and additional cameras sell for $99.99 each (the gateway device can work with up to a total of 50 cameras). The $300 price tag includes a one-year subscription to the Vue service, which "allows you to view live streams, record up to 2GB of content and share live and recorded content with your friends and family." After the first year, you need to pay $19.95 per year in order to continue to use the Vue as well as utilize these features.

Setting up the Vue is very simple. You connect the gateway to your router, install the batteries into the cameras, turn on the cameras, and sync the cameras to the gateway. You sync the cameras by bringing them to within 12-inches of the gateway and pressing the Sync button on top of the gateway--within a few seconds the cameras are synced to the gateway. The next step is to register the Vue on the Vue website and set up an account. The kit comes with four rounded camera mounts; the mounts and the back of the cameras are magnetized, so the cameras effortlessly connect to the mounts and can be easily aimed exactly where you want them. The mounts include peel-and-stick tape for mounting on virtually any surface. The cameras can communicate with the gateway up to 300 feet away via line-of-site--in most practical installations, which will go through walls and such, that maximum distance will be less. The folks at Avaak claim the Vue has a similar transmission range as an 802.11n device.

I set one camera up looking out my living room window--I've got a great view of the Hudson River. The other camera was set up in my daughter's room, aimed at her crib. My thinking about the camera looking out the window is that it might be interesting to see what the weather back at home was like when I was out and about. The thought behind the second camera is a little more obvious--I could keep an eye on my daughter when she naps and sleeps without me being in the room with her. The Avaak site offers a few examples of how others are using the Vue, such as keeping an eye on a weekend house or monitoring a disabled child.

To view the camera feeds, I log into the my.VueZone website, which then takes me to the watch page. The watch page displays thumbnails for my two cameras on the left in a My Cameras window; I can drag one or both thumbnails to the My Vue window and then click on the Start button to view them. Note that you can currently view only one camera at a time. According to the Avaak folks, "there is 2MB of bandwidth on the radio within the gateway, and all of that is needed to stream to one camera for the best user experience." That said, they also told me that they are "considering enhancing the capabilities in the future." The cameras are only powered on when they are being actively viewed on the my.VueZone site. Avaak estimates that a camera battery should last up to a year, based on "normal usage"--which they define as "10 minutes of viewing or recording a day." There is also a View All button, which quickly switches back and forth between your camera feeds.

When you view the feeds from your cameras, you have several options. You can set the video window size to small, medium, or large. You can also record a live video feed or take snapshots. There are also three available light-level settings: Bright Light, Normal Light, and Low Light--which you manually adjust based on the current lighting conditions.

In addition to the watch page, there are also pages for playback, share, and settings. The playback page is where you can view video or snapshots you've previously recorded. The share page is where you can share your camera feeds and recorded videos and snapshots with others, and upload them to flickr and YouTube. You can share with anyone--the folks you share with do not need to be other Vue users--those you share with receive an e-mail with a link to the shared content, which is stored online. If another Vue user shares one of their cameras with you, you can view their camera on the watch page, alongside your own cameras. The settings page includes sections for My Schedules and My Camera Settings. Unfortunately, when you try to use the scheduling feature, you get a message that says "Coming Soon." I was told "Avaak is currently working on this feature; however, at this time there is no confirmed date on when it will be available." The settings information lets you name your cameras and gateway, and it shows data about the cameras and gateway, such as remaining battery capacity and whether they are currently connected.

I used the Vue for a couple of weeks, and I have to say I was underwhelmed. I like the concept--especially because the device is easy to setup and use and because the cameras are wireless. But I experienced limited functionality with the cameras as well as a few annoying bugs with the my.VueZone website.

First of all, I wasn't impressed at all with the image quality and frame rates. The highest resolution supported is 640x480--and that is when there is a strong signal--when the signal is weak, the resolution downgrades to 320x240 or 160x120. Even with a camera placed within feet of the gateway, the image was blocky, blotchy, and slow to respond to movement. The next issue I ran into was that it actually took a fair bit of light to make a scene bright enough for the camera to see images clearly (the website states "the cameras need the light of a 40 Watt bulb or higher to get quality pictures"). You can tweak the brightness settings via software, but if the area you are recording is not bright enough to begin with, there is not much you can do about it. I'm not just nitpicking here--I have other devices, such as webcams, that have better light detection than the Vue. The Vue seems much better suited for well-lit outdoor settings than dark indoor environments. I also found that the field of view of the cameras was rather narrow--I would have preferred a much wider field of view that could take in more area of small spaces. The hardware lacks the ability to do motion control or record audio; however the Avaak folks told me that "future versions of the Vue that incorporate audio and motion detection features are being considered."

I also experienced a number of bugs while using the my.VueZone website, which is flash-based. In order to perform a number of functions, you need to drag a thumbnail of the camera image to the action you want to do, such as viewing a camera or sharing a camera. A number of times, I dragged a thumbnail, but it never actually showed up in the desired window. Other times, I couldn't resize the video windows or get the View All function to work. I used the my.VueZone website with a number of different browsers on Windows and Mac systems, experiencing these bugs on all platforms and browsers. As the my.VueZone website is flash-based, it does not work natively on the iPhone; there is an iPod app version in the works--it is currently in beta--and Avaak hopes to be releasing it "as soon as possible."

As to my two usage scenarios, I didn't get much out of the Vue. I work from home, and when I leave the house I usually don't take a laptop with me--but I do have my trusty iPhone on my person at all times (much to the chagrin of my wife). Since there is no iPhone app, I can't view my personal "weather cam" when out and about. And as far as monitoring my daughter’s crib, I can only use the Vue when my daughter naps during the daytime with the shades open. Once night hits and the lights go out, the image goes dark (her nightlight is much less than 40 watts). The field of view was also very tight, which is why the camera was only looking at her crib, as opposed to more of her room in general.

In my opinion, the Vue is very much a 1.0 product. It has lots of potential, but its current execution leaves much to be desired. With the knowledge that the Avaak folks will be reading this (Hi!), I thought I would end my evaluation of the Vue with a wish list of improvements I'd like to see.

* Better image quality and faster frame rates
* Better low-light sensitivity
* Wider field of view
* Enable viewing live feeds from both cameras simultaneously
* Integrate motion control and audio capabilities in future versions
* Bring the scheduled recording feature online
* Make the iPhone app available
* Iron out the bugs in the web interface

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