It's hard to imagine that a Texas police agency, Chinese airport security and thousands of small business owners share much in common. But they do share at least one thing: An interest in iSpy Connect, a free, feature-rich open source video surveillance application that's compatible with standard consumer webcams and IP cameras.
It's heady stuff for a project that was initially born out of what creator Sean Tearney terms "a healthy but sceptical interest in ghosts and UFOs".
"It sounds really stupid now, but I was interested in ghosts and UFOs," Tearney says. "It just started off as a hobby. I was trying to find some decent motion detection software for Windows and I couldn't find any really good software. I was thinking that if everyone installed this software it would be a SETI-type project, where instead of people devoting their computer time to analysing signals they could just use their webcams and spot weird things in the sky."
The number one use of iSpy has probably been small business security, although home monitoring is also popular. The features list is staggering, and includes mobile access through a Web app and desktop monitoring for workplaces. Particularly attractive when it's deployed as part of a security system is its face recognition capabilities, that can differentiate a human from a pet or changes in lighting.
The program was built using AFORGE, an open source motion detection library for .NET/C#. "I used that and then it grew and grew, and I was getting more and more interest about it," Tearney says. "Obviously motion detection [makes possible] security and baby monitoring and neighbourhood watch and things like that. So as iSpy improved and got more stable and more features added in, it just snowballed into where it is now, which is pretty massive solution for surveillance and remote monitoring."
The spread of iSpy's capabilities means that individuals and organisations have found uses for it that Tearney would never have anticipated.
"I had an email this morning from a police agency in Texas in the US that wants to integrate its database of licence plates for sex offenders with iSpy using licence plate recognition, so when a camera scans the number plate it sends it off to their database and if it's a known sex offender it can return a message about it,” he says.
"I had another one quite recently an airport in China. They've got a thermal imaging camera, so when people get off a plane if they've got a fever they show up red in this camera. They requested me to add an HSL filter to iSpy so it filters out specific colours from the frame. They are running their thermal imaging camera through that filter — someone whose got a high temperature shows up red on the thermal imaging camera and it sees a red blob moving and sets off a motion alarm, telling them it spotted someone with a high fever getting off a plane."
Tearney gets revenue by charging for services such as remote access though his server and SMS alerts. "If someone wants advanced features like [licence plate recognition] I'm happy to work with them and add it in for free because at the end of the day, it increases the scope of the application and gets more people using it. I just want as many people to be using it as I can get; that's my main goal.
"If someone wants to pay me to add something in for them and them only I'd definitely consider doing it, but my main goal is to make iSpy as widely used and as popular as I can."
Tearney has partnered with some webcam and IP camera vendors, which ship branded versions of iSpy Connect with their products. "Some of these companies shift 50,000 webcams per month and if all those webcams go out and they've all got branded, customised software it saves the webcam companies a fortune from having to write their own software. And it gets me a lot of exposure directly at the point when people are opening their webcam. It's an ideal conversion time for me."
When Tearney started work on iSpy, it was a side project more akin to a hobby for him. "I was working on some other projects as well — a database system¸ and I just started iSpy in my spare time. It got a lot more popular than my database system quite quickly — there's 50,000 users in there and I've got 200 on my database project and I just thought 'it doesn't make sense to me so maybe I should do this seriously’.
"I slogged away for a couple of years. It was ticking along bringing in a couple of thousand dollars a month, not really bringing in much, then I got it included on a few cover discs for quite a few software publications, mainly in Europe.
"From that point on it's just grown month on month on month, and now, because what I sell is subscriptions, I've got 1200 subscribers. So that is bringing in a fulltime income. Then you get prepay people and Google Adwords (people who aren't subscribers see advertising on the site). It's easy for me to work on iSpy — before I was having to do freelance stuff to supplement my income."
Bar a few bugfixes Tearney has been the only coder working on the project, although at least one person is working on a plug-in (fall detection for use in elderly people's homes). However, the community surrounding the product has contributed translations of the software to different languages.
Being accountable only to himself instead of a wider team has its advantages, with Tearney able to set his own priorities (which are generally based on feature requests from users). In the future he is looking at adding touchscreen support and a version for Windows 8, as well as working on the licence plate detection system for the Texas police agency and integrating two-way audio support. In addition, a chunk of his time is spent on adding support for new devices: "Every month 10 new IP cameras are released, so [I] continue adding in support for more and more IP cameras because they all use different protocols."
Rohan Pearce is the editor of Techworld Australia. Contact him at rohan_pearce at idg.com.au.
Follow Rohan on Twitter: @rohan_p
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