the future of the baby monitor is now

Things are going great here in new dad land. We’re total experts now with eight days of parenting under our belt; we have sorted out everything up to the tearful goodbye as she leaves for Harvard.

One side-effect of being off work is that I’m overflowing with undirected nerd energy. I knew that eventually we’d want a baby monitor of some sort (although at the moment Anne sleeps right next to our bed in a bassinet). I also knew that cheap, high-quality, internet-connected surveillance cameras have become widely available over the last decade, so I decided to do some recreational research on their application as baby monitors.

One obvious choice for this is the super-slick Dropcam, the iPhone of IP cameras (recently acquired by Nest), with it’s beautiful industrial design, slick website/app and overall turn-key experience.

Dropcam Pro, $200

No doubt this is a high-quality camera, and probably the right choice for many who are not technophiles and just want to buy a camera and be done with it. However, I see several downsides of Dropcam:

  1. It’s expensive. $200 to buy the hardware.
  2. It requires an ongoing subscription ($100-$300/year) to use “cloud recording” and remote (via Phone app or web).
  3. It does not pan or tilt–it points in precisely one direction.
  4. There’s a considerable delay (3-30 seconds, depending on the method of access) in the video and audio stream.

For me, 4 is the deal-breaker for a baby monitor application, where I would rather know the baby is crying before 30 seconds have elapsed.

Instead of Dropcam, I decided to go with it’s chief competitor in the market: Foscam. In many ways, Foscam is Dropcam’s opposite: instead of a single slickly packaged and marketed piece of hardware with an integrated software ecosystem, Foscam offers a dizzying array of poorly differentiated IP camera products with much less appealing packaging. It requires more effort and knowledge to set up. Overall, it has the feel of a hardware manufacturer with a strong product skipping over candy-coating and marketing directly to savvy consumers. I quickly surmised from its 2000+ Amazon reviews that the most popular current Foscam model is catchily named¬†FI9821W.

The deftly named Foscam FI9821W V2


This camera is so popular, in fact, that it was available through the new “Amazon Now” instant delivery service in Austin; I ordered and had it delivered to my door, for free, on a Saturday, in two hours. I love living in the future. Here are its strong points:

  1. Cheap. $75 from Amazon.
  2. No subscription fees for accessing over the internet.
  3. Motorized, remote-control pan/tilt.
  4. Robust software ecosystem, including the excellent Tinycam Monitor Pro.

I set up this camera while soothing Anne to sleep, which is either a testament to new-dad multitasking resourcefulness, it’s relative ease-of-use, or both. Now, I’m sure the setup was harder than it would have been with the Dropcam, but I am not afraid of my wireless router and have a pretty good understanding of how the internet works. I got it on my wireless network, then forwarded its HTTPS port through my firewall so it was accessible from the internet, ¬†installed Tinycam Pro on my phone, and voila, I was connected.

Here’s the current setup: eye of Sauron gazes upon baby Anne:

The electric eye sees all.

And here’s what I see in the Tinycam app on my phone:

Nap, now with full data readout.

You’ve got high-quality, high-frame-rate video of all the exciting nap action. In the upper left, you see buttons to initiate recording (which can be saved to Google Drive or Dropbox). You have a live audio feed. You have a button to send your voice from the phone to the camera. The graph in the lower right shows the sound level over time plotted as a green line. The white line is the ‘squelch’; if audio is below this level, your phone mutes it. The red line is the ‘alarm’ level; if the audio reaches this, a tone sounds and the phone vibrates. It is also configured to alert if it senses excessive motion in the video feed.

My geek heart sings with joy. I can pull out my phone from anywhere: downstairs, at the grocery store, across the country, and get the full data dump on the nap. I can automatically record video based on any motion alerts and review it later. All for $75 + $4 for the app!