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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Two High-Tech Halloween Surveillance Pumpkin Mods (Step-by-Step Plans!)

PM's senior technology editor Glenn Derene is defending his property on mischief night by catching the ne'er-do-wells before they strike—with two high-tech video-capturing pumpkin mods.

When I was a kid, I remember a certain yearly Halloween ritual that didn't involve candy, costumes or door-to-door trick-or-treating. My father and I would walk down to the end of our driveway, screwdrivers in hand, and remove our mailbox from its post. After several years of living in our house in suburban Westchester County in New York, my father had decided that our mailbox had simply taken enough abuse. Every Halloween, the mischief-making teens in our neighborhood would fill all the mailboxes on our road with a variety of goopy, stinky material, including rotten eggs, shaving cream, toilet paper, old fruit, unwanted candy and whatever else was on hand and offensive to the eyes, hands or nose. And these assaults of vandalism would frequently move past the mailbox to nearby trees, decorative pumpkins and even to the house itself, if the miscreants thought they could get away with it. Many residents, including my father, had attempted to defend their property the only way they knew how—by peering out the window into the darkness from time to time, checking for suspicious movements. But it was impossible for these homeowners to keep watch all night long—they simply lacked the technology.

I don't. Now that I am an adult and a homeowner myself, I am acutely aware of the threat from rambunctious and undisciplined teenagers—at one point in my history, I was one of them. Yet that doesn't mean I have to put up with it. I am determined to defend my house, and I can identify any person who attempts to assault it. You see; if anyone so much as raises a rotten egg in anger on my property, I'll have the whole thing on video.

My confederates in this surveillance operation will be a pair of high-tech jack-o-lanterns. These poor, put-upon squashes are often targets of abuse themselves—smashed, chucked, or defaced with magic markers—so I decided to carve my family's yearly pumpkins into security sentinels with built-in video cameras.

Make a Surveillance Pumpkin:
Step-by-Step Photos

The Vue Pumpkin
The Generic Wireless Camera Kit Pumpkin

Camera technology has gotten both cheaper and more sophisticated in the past few years—wireless video transmission, in particular, has exploded into the home security market based on the legitimate need for security. I outfitted my pumpkins with two different low-cost wireless video systems. The first was a small no-name-brand infrared camera and receiver bought for $40 from bargain computer-parts site (no kidding, the box just says "Wireless Camera Kit" and "Made in China" on it). The second was the new Aavek Vue wireless camera system, which comes with two mini cameras and a receiver/network interface for $300.

Both systems have their advantages: The no-name wireless kit was super-cheap, and it promised to capture detailed images of miscreants hiding in the darkest of Halloween shadows. The Vue system promised to be easy to set up, and, because it works through a simple Web interface, the video is viewable on any computer with no setup, and could be watched remotely through a password-protected site.

Carving the pumpkins was easy. Thanks to a tip from Popular Mechanics's senior home editor, Roy Berendsohn, I sliced through squash flesh with ease using a drywall saw. Each pumpkin was built with a different strategy. For my infrared camera pumpkin, I chose deterrence—one eyehole of the jack-o-lantern face was carved to match the aperture of the camera, then the rest of the face was carved to accentuate the pumpkin's all-seeing eye. Unfortunately, I also had to carve an exit hole for the camera's power cord out the pumpkin's rear end—apparently the "wireless" camera wasn't completely so. To secure the camera, I wrapped a section of 12-gauge building wire around its base, then poked the ends into the inner flesh of the pumpkin for support. The resulting face was a nice balance of madness and menace; my pumpkin's grotesque techno-eye loomed large and leering. Even better, in the evening the infrared LED array glowed faintly red, warning those who pass: You are being watched—behave yourself, or else!

My Vue pumpkin was far more subtle and secretive. Since Vue cameras are tiny, completely wireless and battery-powered, they can easily disappear inside a cavernous pumpkin. I carved the Vue pumpkin with textbook triangle eyes and nose, then created the mouth as a howling oval for a convenient camera porthole near the base. Then I synced the Vue camera with its base station, turned it on, and inserted it into the pumpkin, creating a platform for it out of the carved-out section of pumpkin that I had removed for the mouth.

The Vue system worked perfectly. I went to an online Web page and created a password-protected account for my base station, and, in moments, I was viewing video of my front yard. The Vue service gives 2 GB of storage for recorded video for the first year, with an option for downloading clips to your computer for longer-term storage. You can check the live footage from anywhere with Web access, even from your phone.

The infrared wireless camera was not so impressive. Its instructions are probably much clearer in the original Chinese, but I found them impossible to follow. The system consists of two parts, the camera and base station, which has no computer interface to speak of, only a composite video and mono audio output (although for the life of me, I couldn't find any microphone on the camera itself). There is also a switch for four channels within the 2.4-GHz frequency band, but no corresponding switch on the camera. You are left to guess what frequency your camera is outputting video on, or randomly switch from channel to channel until you see video.

And, in all likelihood, you'll be switching around like crazy trying to get any sort of signal—in my experience, the receiver didn't picking up anything at all the first time I tried it. I discovered through plenty of trial and error that the receiver–camera combo only seemed to work when they were within 10 feet of one another. A fat lot of good that does when the television I'm attempting to plug it into is thirty feet away from the pumpkin on the front porch. The problem was eventually solved with a very long composite video cord. Even then, however, the video cut in and out until I found just the right spot for the receiver. I guess you get what you pay for.

Nevertheless, now I have two working surveillance pumpkins ready for Halloween night. I also have several bags of candy and snacks for the children who come to the door in cute costumes, looking for a treat. But for those who come looking for nothing but mischief, I've got a trick or two up my sleeve.


Make a Surveillance Pumpkin:
Step-by-Step Photos

The Vue Pumpkin
The Generic Wireless Camera Kit Pumpkin


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