I was video chatting with a colleague on the other coast last week and was frustrated with the limitation of my webcam. In this case, I was using the built-in camera in the Mac PowerBook, but the same is true of typical webcams on the PC side. They have a fixed focal length and have limited quality and zoom. I was unable to show what I needed to show without physically walking the laptop and camera where I needed it to be. Same is true in a classroom where it would be nice to focus on the student who is talking or zoom in on an important object instead of being stuck with a single shot. The next day, while talking on the phone I rambled through the garage (ok, I multitask). Next to the forgotten Spanish guitar, I came across the bin with the family’s old, dead camcorders. Only, not quite dead. If they have a note like the one here — “Dead, eats tapes”–it might mean that the great lens and image processor still work. It would make an ideal webcam with a killer zoom and far superior image quality. Not to mention a better iris, backlight control, etc. When I hooked up the camera to the computer–don’t need tape for that–I got what I needed. The first picture on the right shows the standard webcam image. That’s what you’re stuck with. Now, notice the red circle underneath the tree. When I hooked up the “dead” camcorder, a Panasonic PV-DV900, I zoomed in and actually see fruit in the tree. (Those are avocados, for those you in the east. We grow them on trees out here.) I was sitting in the same position with the same computer but with a way better picture for no extra money. Not to mention the macrolens and other image controls on a typical, inexpensive consumer camcorders. Here’s how to do it with most old camcorders. Retrieve or buy a firewire cable (IEEE 1394). They’re available for $3 to $22, if you’ve lost yours. You want a 4-pin connector (figure A) to go into the camera. The same connector will connect to a PC. For a Mac, you need a 6-pin connector (figure B). So, a 4-pin to 4-pin cable for PC, and a 4-pin to 6-pin cable for a Mac. On a Mac, you will have to go into the camera choice setting and select the camcorder instead of the built-in iSight camera. Hook up the camera before you open iChat. On a PC, you may also have to select the camcorder as camera. The software from your old webcam may do it or check the control panel and select the camera. You may also was a mini-tripod to keep the camera on your desk or table. I bought one at Radio Shack for $6.99 (they call it a Table-Top Tripod), but they are in camera stores and electronic stores, too. They are intended for the new, lighter, digital cameras, so make sure they will support the weight of your camcorder before you throw away the receipt. This really will change the way you use video on the web. Try it! A couple of notes: I managed to get the old battery to actually charge up, so it made me portable. But the camera and video chat seemed to suck the Mac battery dry quickly, so you might want to keep the computer powered. The camcorder, too, so it doesn’t cut off too soon. Some cameras beep without a tape (it stops), and some will turn off automatically after 5 minutes or so if they don’t have a tape. If yours is one of those, grab an old tape, hit record, and you’re good to go. Keep using the old tape, and you don’t care if it gets eaten. Survey your parent base (or the web) for old camcorders. There are boxcars full of them out other–especially with families with kids, which are your parents! The parents may also throw in the old tripod. Take it! Then you will be ready as DEN webmaster Steve Dembo builds in video chat on the award winning DEN site. I’m not using inside information. I just know Steve.
So, on the day when Google launches its new browser, Chrome, I thought we’d do a little old-school stuff on the blog. Knowing Google, built-in webcam functionality is not far away in the browser world. Be ready for it with the coolest killer webcam–free!