Live webcams have become a popular marketing tool for resorts, especially at oceanfront properties and ski resorts. But with so many different types of webcams available, it can be a real challenge to find the right setup for your needs. I’ve written this guide as a starting point, to explain the most important webcam features and hopefully aid you in your purchasing decisions.
Note: TrueLook’s HD webcam systems already include all the features you need, so you don’t need to stress over these details. This guide is for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of the options available in the marketplace, and how these options affect the user experience.
Part 1: Camera Hardware
Firstly, you need to understand the difference between an IP (or network) camera and a basic webcam. If you’ve only just begun to learn about webcams, you’ve probably run across products from Microsoft, Logitech, HP, and others in the $30 – $200 range. These webcams only work if they are connected to a computer, and are most commonly used with video chat programs. For an always-on webcam, these are not what you need. Instead, you’re looking for an IP camera.
IP cameras do not have to be connected to any computer. They are designed for more robust applications and can be online 24/7. They can also utilize outdoor enclosures that will protect them. These traits make IP cameras ideal for almost all marketing applications.
Digital vs. Optical Zooming
IP cameras come in two basic types. Fixed-position cameras have no moving parts, and can offer digital zooming to end-users. PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) cameras have built-in motors that can aim the camera and adjust the lens for optical zooming.
Translation: PTZ cameras allow your users to optically aim and zoom the camera with no loss of image quality. They also allow for coverage of a much larger area, as the camera can physically pan and tilt at the user’s command. On the other hand, fixed-position cameras can often provide a higher resolution image at a lower price point.
Tip: Play with various types of cameras to understand how they differ. You can try TrueLook’s Demo Webcams.
Since the camera resolution has a direct impact on the image quality, it is probably one of the first things for you to consider. Camera resolutions may be listed in a combination of three ways:
1. In megapixels (ex. 2.1MP)
2. By pixel dimensions (ex. 1200×960)
3. By display standard (ex. SVGA or 1080p)
To compare cameras, it is probably easiest to express all resolutions in megapixels. For example, a 1200×960 camera is about 1.2 megapixels (1200 x 960 = 1,152,000 pixels). Keep in mind that cameras have varying aspect ratios. Check the camera specs. If the aspect ratio is not explicitly labeled, use the pixel dimensions. 800×600 would be the standard 4:3 ratio. 1920×1200 would display a wider image.
Tip: The size of the webcam interface also affects the perceived image quality. For example, an SVGA webcam may look decent in a small interface, but would look highly distorted when stretched to full screen.
Resolution Examples (click to view):
If you don’t want to manually adjust the focus on the physical camera itself, make sure your webcam includes autofocus. Keep in mind; your camera will probably be mounted at a significant height and within a weatherproof enclosure… so I would highly recommend autofocus.
Most webcams are not weatherproof, so make sure you have the proper enclosure to keep nature from destroying your camera. If your location reaches extreme temperatures, there are also enclosures for these conditions.
A “day/night” camera can perform better in low-light conditions. Infrared cameras also exist for “night vision”, although they have a limited range. Even long range IR cameras only illuminate to around 300 feet. You probably don’t need (or want) IR when your camera is used for marketing purposes.
If you are trying to stream live video, check the fps capability of your camera. You will need a fast internet connection to stream video. Cameras will perform better at lower resolutions, since the lower pixel count saves bandwidth.
Tip: Be aware that streaming may limit the interactivity of your camera. More controls and interactive features are usually available on webcams that deliver live images rather than video. Streaming will also be more expensive than live images, since it requires more resources and bandwidth.
Part 2: Software, Hosting, And Interactivity
In addition to camera hardware, you need a webcam service to host your camera and provide the interactive services. This will provide the interface and features for your camera, and will also allow for multiple users to access the webcam.
Maximum Number of Users
Your hosting service should allow unlimited simultaneous users to view the webcam. Some services force users into a queue before they can access certain features, such as PTZ controls. Other services have no queue, allowing all users to control the camera simultaneously.
Embedding The Interface
Is the webcam interface easy to embed into your existing website? Will it stretch to fit where you want it? If the interface requires its own dedicated webpage, you lose the ability to craft a marketing message on the page. Embedding into your own website gives more control for branding, encouraging other user actions, or generating revenue through ads.
Browser & Device Compatibility
Does the interface work across all types of browsers? Some interfaces require Flash or Java to run. This means many users will not be able to see your interface, if the interface doesn’t have a fallback. Flash famously does not load on iPhones or iPads, for example.
Many webcam systems can display live weather information from your webcam location. Decide whether this is important to you, but most beach and ski resorts find this especially useful.
Does the interface provide a quick and easy way to share your webcam? Can users share with their social networks? Obviously, accessible sharing features can lead to more organic exposure through your users’ networks.
Image Saving Options
Does the interface let users save images from the webcam? Are photo albums built into the interface?
With some services, you can brand the webcam with your own logo (or the logo of an advertiser).
Webcam services may include reports on your user activity. This will let you know whether the camera is successfully drawing traffic and engaging users. This can also indicate year/year growth or decline in your webcam’s interest.
Ultimately, you have to decide what is important to you and what will help you achieve your goals. Hopefully I’ve explained some new concepts for you and given you enough food for thought. Good luck hunting, and let us know if we can help make the process easier for you!