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Webcams aren’t just for the Skyping Grandma: they are your computers’ eye on the world.
There’s a surprising amount you can do with that webcam, so let’s take a look at some uses you might not have thought of.
Control Your Media and Games
There may be all manner of fancy gesture and motion controllers like the Razer Hydra for VR gaming – but for basic pause, play and skip controls, your webcam with more than suffice. Flutter (now owned by Google) interfaces with a number of popular media apps like VLC and iTunes and is a free download for Mac or Windows. Since there’s only a few controls, gesture recognition is quick and accurate.
CamSpace (no longer available) uses physical objects like a cardboard steering wheel to emulate game controls, but you’ll need to make sure they’re not skintone coloured or the same your clothing. Works best with racing games and those with limited controls.
Make Stop Motion Movies
An incredible creative project for kids, stop-motion videos involve making minor adjustments to a scene then taking an image and repeating the process hundreds or thousands of times over. Popularised by animations such as Wallace and Grommit, stop-motion is easy using your webcam and special software. If your plasticine modelling skills aren’t that great, use LEGO to create your movie – you’ll need lots of heads and a sharpie if you want real emotion though.
iStopMotion is the most professional choice (Mac only), and comes with a huge list of features that justify the $50 price tag, such as onion skinning (where the current frame is overlaid on the last, to show exactly what changed). On the free side, check out MonkeyJam for Windows.
Of course, you needn’t limit yourself to a webcam – if you have an iPhone, iPad or Android – there’s a number of mobile stop-motion tools available to you too.
Take Time-Lapse Sequences
For observing things like plant growth or weather patterns, time-lapse photography involves taking a single photo at set intervals – anywhere from every five minutes to once a day for a really long term project.
Gawker (Mac) is a simple time-lapse app that can be run on multiple machines at once for multi-cam composite time-lapses. SkyStudioPro (Windows) is a freeware app that will handle both motion detection and time-lapse sequence.
If you have a USB webcam rather than one built into your machine, this is even easier on the Raspberry Pi, and won’t require you to leave your computer on all the time.
Set Up Home Surveillance
There’s a variety of home surveillance software packages I’ve covered before which you can use to keep an eye on your home and record footage from a webcam, and yet again, this is one area in which the Raspberry Pi shines.
Take Silly Photos
PhotoBooth comes free with all Macs and has a variety of silly effects you can apply instantly, as well as a dead simple interface. Cameroid is an online service that does the same, with preset effects and scenes like this one:
Set Up A Photo Booth For A Party
Apparently, putting a photo booth at events is what all the young ‘uns are doing nowadays, so they can capture the moment when they’re all dolled up. You can get as complex as you like, and even hook up a printer for instant hard copies. SparkBooth (for Windows and Mac) is a tad pricey at $55 for a personal licence (there’s a 30-day watermarked trial), but is tailored specifically for parties and events – it even hooks into your printer and allow users to email the pictures or share them straight to Facebook and Twitter.
Start a Library (Mac)
Wait, what? What does a library have to do with a webcam? Well, imagine the tedium of cataloguing an entire library of books and DVDs by having to type in the title and all the other minutiae. Now stop imagining it, because you don’t have to. Delicious Library ($24.99) lets you catalogue pretty much anything, and if it has a barcode then the information is automatically pulled from Amazon. Just hold the product up to your webcam, and let the app do its magic. Read about my adventures cataloguing all the things with Delicious Library 3 here.
Play Motion Games
The epitome of casual gaming, these primitive motion-controlled games might keep you amused for at most 14 seconds, but don’t expect near as advanced as these Microsoft Kinect hacks. CBBC has quite a few webcam games for children; or try ExtendedReality for a list of downloadable and online webcam games.
Make Animated GIFs
GifPal works in your browser to create animated GIFs from a series of photos. It’s incredibly simple to use, and includes effects. Unlike some online GIF tools, no login is required, but it does need Flash and the output isn’t exactly high resolution.
FaceToGIF is a modern implementation using HTML5, and works more like a video recorder than a series of snapshots. There are no fancy filters, but you do get a choice of frame sizes and the final output is far higher quality. Filesizes can be quite large, but you always optimize them. Again, no login required nor Flash.
Login Or Unlock Your Computer
Passwords are so passé: join the CSI generation with automatic facial recognition login. KeyLemon ($40) for Windows and Mac is the leading solution which includes both login and password manager features, but I found their online demo was defeated by just tilting my head slightly. Rohos Face Logon is freeware but more limited in features. The truth is that facial recognition is extremely difficult – Windows 8 was rumoured to come with facial recognition after a certain API call was found, but this never came to fruition – presumably because it just didn’t work that well.
Most webcam toys are gimmicks that won’t keep you amused for long, but I do think there’s great educational value in creating a time-lapse sequence or stimulating the creative juices with things like stop motion. Check out these other creative weekend projects for Mac too while you’re at it. When not in use, you might want to keep that webcam taped up, given how easy it is for anyone to hack into it.
Do you have any other favourite webcam tools?