Keeping an eye on things at home while you are away is easy if you have broadband Internet and $300 to $400 for a surveillance kit.
It takes just a few minutes to connect a camera to your Windows-running PC - Macs generally are not supported - so you can turn your old computer into a security system, as long as it runs Windows XP or Vista, has an available USB port and at least 256 megabytes of memory.
Why would you want one? While you're at work, you could:
Monitor your garage, where you store your bikes and tools.
Check on the dog while the family is out of the house.
Receive an e-mail when your camera captures your kids arriving home at the scheduled time.
Make sure that everything's OK in your elderly parents' kitchen or living room.
We do not condone spying. These are security setups meant to help you keep an eye on the places and things you care about, not to violate anyone's privacy. Devices that capture video and/or audio recordings can bring various state and federal laws into play; for example, in Illinois and several other states, it is illegal to audio-record people without their consent.
That said, high-speed Internet connections, home computers, software and smaller, simpler video cameras have made it possible for people to create their own monitoring systems. Consumers will spend $1 billion on do-it-yourself surveillance kits by 2012, according to market researcher Multić Media Intelligence.
It's a fairly new market, spurred by the spread of broadband in homes and rising interest in video surveillance, says Mark Kirstein, president of MultiMedia Intelligence. Brands such as WiLife are slowly making their way into big electronics chains - for example, Best Buy sells WiLife products but only online, not in stores.
"Samsung, Panasonic and big players from the corporate surveillance market are (beginning to target) consumers," Kirstein says.
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
A PC that has:
A high-speed connection to the Internet.
One USB port per camera.
A hard drive with 50 gigabytes of storage per camera if you plan to record a week of continuous video. You'll need much less disk space if you set your system to record only when a camera detects motion - 1 gigabyte of storage could hold a month's worth of video, depending on how much motion occurs in the camera's viewing range.
A camera that has a wide - 70 degrees or more - viewing range. A basic camera has a 45-degree viewing range, which may be all you need, but a wider range will show you more of a room at a glance.
WHAT YOU'LL GET
Most systems are similar in concept to the $200 Swann Communications USB 2.0 DVR Guardian Kit that I've tried. It comes with two cameras, and I tried a $50 Swann color video camera that comes with a wide-angle lens for viewing a whole room at once. You can mix and match brands when assembling your system. My advice: Spend the extra bucks for a wide-angle lens; more coverage means you may need fewer cameras.