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To WebCam Or Not To WebCam: (The IBM PC Camera)

Back in the 1960’s I vividly recall the videophone. It was coming soon, so you’d better be ready. The only problem was nobody wanted it. The hurdle? Seeing your neighbor while gabbing certainly added dimension to the conversation but not everybody wants to see what you’re doing every last second. Sometimes, you never want the other party to see what you’re doing at any second. Housewives had awful images that usually placed them in curlers, cold cream and a bathrobe. If the other calling party saw you in that getup, they might not be so eager to call back in the future. For this and a multitude of other reasons (like the gadgets would have cost as much as a new Chevy), the home based videophone flopped.

A new generation of technology users has arrived and they don’t care what they look like. ;-) The Web Camera (WebCam, PC Cam) is one of the coolest technologies to become practical. Achieve a good 45-50Kbps connection and enjoying full motion color video and limited bandwidth audio becomes a reality. Have a cable modem? Simply crank the video & audio resolution to their limits and gab, gab, gab until your lips fall off.

Manufacturer’s Specifications

The IBM PC Camera is a USB peripheral compliant up to 12 Mbps allowing for high frame rate video and eliminates the need for a video capture card or power supply. This camera supports CIF, SIF and QCIF video formats, provides 24 bit true color, and allows true still image capture at up to 352 x 288 pixels. Mechanical dimensions are 1.5" (H) x 2.5" (W) x 2.8" (D) and the camera includes a +/- 20º tilt by 360° swivel base. An adjustable focus lens allows users close-up to infinity focus adjustments to be made.

The IBM PC Camera interface provides users with total control over the camera settings to adjust for various lighting conditions. It includes a video and still image album and allows users to store images in BMP, JPG and AVI formats.

IBM video e-mail enables users to send small, highly compressed video files. It also comes with a selectable frame rate control from 10-30 frames per second (fps) and an optional decode driver to reduce file size.


After tearing open the packaging ‘cause you’re so excited to show just how obnoxious you look to all your friends, don’t plug the USB cable in just yet. In case you forget, the USB end has an orange warning sticker covering the plug. Install the drivers and any other software you feel is necessary. The accompanying CD is jam packed with 7 programs and utilities totaling 542MB. You’ll be busy for quite awhile playing around with all the new goodies. There are even Windows 2000 drivers included but the functionality of these were not tested as I have not installed Win2K just yet.

One reboot later, I plugged the WebCam in and…nothing happened--no power light. At first, I thought this one was a dud, but then I activated the IBM PC Camera program. Bingo! The camera pulls it’s power from the USB port itself. At 5 volts, the draw is a mild 100 mA.

Viola’! It works! I was so happy that I have to share my PC camera joy with you…

This goofy shot was taken in fluorescent light at 176x144 pixels but regular old incandescent will work just as well. If you’re not familiar with the differences, here’s a quickie explanation:

Fluorescent light has a different color "temperature" than incandescent. This temperature does not refer to heat (i.e. touch the bulb with your hand and determine if it’s hot or cold) rather it refers to the spectrum of colors it emits. Yes, white light has within it many colors and furthermore, the amount or intensity of those colors are different for varying types of light. Fluorescent light has a standardized color temperature of 9300 degrees Kelvin. Incandescent light has a standardized color temperature of 6500 degrees Kelvin. Be sure to set your PC camera to the correct lighting method or the image will appear shifted into the green or red part of the color spectrum. Adhere to this standard for your monitor as well.

Adjustments and tweaks abound in the camera’s control panel. For the video nut like me, I had all the relevant control necessary to grab high quality stills and movies. Yep, you can make your own movies too. Of course the 6-foot USB cable limits you, but I’ve seen up to 25-foot USB extenders in the store if a portable laptop isn’t handy. Don’t expect digital camera still image quality, as this piece is limited to 352x288 pixels—far less than the 2000x1500, 3+ Megapixel jobs that can be had today. This camera is meant for casual picture taking/movie making and Internet use. Hey, it’s also only 49 bucks.

I had some concerns regarding the lack of a manual zoom, although it does have a very good adjustable focus. When the box says from "close up to infinity", it’s not just bogus advertising. The next samples are best case scenarios with good lighting and high-resolution (352x288). The first is a normal shot and the second is of a resistor--kudos to anyone identifying the actual value and tolerance. The resistor still was captured at a distance of less than ½ inch. I think that qualifies as a good
macro focus.

NetMeeting Tests

Microsoft’s NetMeeting 3.0 was included on the installation CD, however it is available from MS for free. Since this camera doesn’t include a microphone, I used a standard no frills headset, which may be annoying to some hairstyles, but gave much better sound quality than any general pickup mikes located in OEM monitors or other WebCams. The only way of achieving a smooth 30-fps is to use the lowest resolution (176x144), have good, even lighting and refrain from cranking up the brightness control. Not only is a standard 56Kbps dial-up connection a limiting factor, the 12Mbps USB connection is also a limiting factor.

Massive video and audio compression is used to cram impossibly "wide" bandwidth down a skinny little phone line. Cable users: you know what I mean and you don’t have nearly the same bandwidth limitation.Mathematically speaking, a 176 x 144 pixel, 30 fps, 24-bit color signal has an average bandwidth usage that far exceeds a 56Kbps modem connection. The powers that be have thought up a great compression scheme that gives a much higher ratio than simple 4:1 data-file squashing methods.

Of course, you really don’t have all that data flowing through you wires; the compression schemes have various limitations. You see every one when you move too fast or have too many objects moving in the background. The glitches show up as blurring, dropped frames, or the hilariously funny to watch "delay" effect. When you talk, the words don’t match up with the mouth moments. Video conferencing consists of one talking head blabbing to another talking head, so these distracting artifacts aren’t very annoying or noticeable normally.

Final Thoughts

The IBM PC Camera sits squarely in a crowded market. Best Buy had at least 3 other models of similar quality to choose from when I was searching around reading box spines. The great web support of the IBM (manufactured and supported by Xirlink) combined with the great CD software bundle gives this little wonder the nod. While professional quality video stills & movies are far out of reach for the PC camera, so is it’s price. Selling for $49 it’s hard to go wrong with such a well made, user friendly peripheral that can add the video dimension to the USB equipped PC.

William Yaple

Web Target PC


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