CNN — Dropcam cameras are used to catch burglars, monitor cats and dogs and live-stream county fairs. The small, basic surveillance devices hook up to a wireless network and live stream video to phones and tablets, acting as an extra pair of eyes for the smartphone age.
One person caught their dog on camera starting an apartment fire by turning on a stove. They called neighbors who saved the pyro puppy's life and doused the flames. A 17-year-old, 40 pound sulcata tortoise named Franky records his daily wanderings around the pet store where he lives with a dropcam mounted on his shell.
The gadget has taken off since it launched in 2009 because it is different from typical Web cameras or security systems. It's designed to be dead simple for regular people to use.
It can sense motion and sound and send alerts or e-mails when it detects someone or something moving around or making noise. Using a feature called Talkback, a person can easily talk through the camera -- say to yell at a dog to get off the couch. It even works in the dark.
The videos are private and encrypted by default, but people can make a stream public.
On Thursday, the company released a new version of its camera. The $199 Dropcam Pro still streams 720p video, but it has upgraded the camera's lens, added a zoom feature, and given it a wider field of view to show more of a room. (The older version is still available for $149.)
The device is primarily meant as a security camera for people to monitor their homes while they are at work or traveling. A Washington couple vacationing in Idaho caught a robber ransacking their home after getting a motion alert on the Dropcam iPhone app.
People are putting them in multiple rooms around their houses and taking home security into their own hands instead of depending on alarms. Traditional home security systems aren't as accessible to home owners and have limited uses outside of the bad events they catch on video.
Home security is just the start. Quirky uses are part of Dropcam's DNA.
"It all really did start out with my dad trying to catch a neighbor who was letting his dog poop in his yard," said CEO and co-founder Greg Duffy.
His tech-savvy dad tried to set up a surveillance camera to catch the mystery visitor using the IP cameras available at the time, but he ran into glitches and technical issues. Duffy decided to make a simple camera that anyone could use and watch.
"Making something really easy to use is actually much more difficult than making something complex," Duffy said.
The timing was perfect. The recent spread of high-speed broadband and mobile devices that act as pocket-sized video viewers left an opening for a device that automatically streamed videos to Android and iOS apps.
The apps are a big part of what makes the cameras so appealing. On average, iPhone and iPad users log in to watch their Dropcam streams for more than five minutes a day, according to Duffy. In a given week, 40% of all Dropcam owners use the Talkback feature.
While it's free to download the app and watch the live videos, not every action can be caught live. Dropcam offers a paid service for people who want to access the last seven or 30 days of video recordings. It's turned out to be a savvy business plan. About 40% of Dropcam owners sign up for the cloud service, which costs between $10 and $30 a month.
The company doesn't release sales numbers, but Duffy says its service takes in more videos than YouTube.
Dropcam has big plans for the future. It's beta testing a new artificial intelligence feature that will pick up on patterns from individual streams, learning about a scene over time.
Duffy also thinks cameras will play an integral part in the coming wave of connected homes. The new Dropcam Pro camera has added Bluetooth LE (low energy) support so it can connect to other smart devices in your home. It will open the door to even more creative Dropcam uses.
A Dropcam could be linked to lights or used to turn on a television, or a pet with a location tag could be tracked and recorded across multiple cameras.
Dropcam users will no doubt get very creative.
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By Heather Kelly