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Microsoft LifeCam VX-1000 webcam on a table

Webcams

by Chris Woodford. Last updated: June 12, 2016.

Ever wanted to run your own TV station? A webcam lets you do just that. With one of these tiny, bug-eyed cameras hooked up to your computer, you can broadcast pictures of yourself or your home to the entire world! A webcam is a bit like a digital camera and works much the same way. But unlike a digital camera, it's designed to make relatively compact digital photos that are easy to upload onto Web pages or send across the Internet. It all sounds simple enough, but how do webcams actually work? Let's take a closer look!

Photo: This Microsoft LifeCam VX-1000 webcam can stand on a table or clip to the screen of a laptop. It has a built-in microphone and a long USB cable carries both picture and sound to your computer. Some laptops and netbooks have built-in webcams. That sounds like a good idea in theory but, again, it limits you to showing pictures of what is directly in front of the computer. Other popular cams are made by Logitech, Creative, Hue, and TeckNet.

How does a webcam work?

Microsoft LifeCam VX-800 webcam

A webcam is a compact digital camera you can hook up to your computer to broadcast video images in real time (as they happen). Just like a digital camera, it captures light through a small lens at the front using a tiny grid of microscopic light-detectors built into an image-sensing microchip (either a charge-coupled device (CCD) or, more likely these days, a CMOS image sensor). As we'll see in a moment, the image sensor and its circuitry converts the picture in front of the camera into digital format—a string of zeros and ones that a computer knows how to handle. Unlike a digital camera, a webcam has no built-in memory chip or flash memory card: it doesn't need to "remember" pictures because it's designed to capture and transmit them immediately to a computer. That's why webcams have USB cables coming out of the back. The USB cable supplies power to the webcam from the computer and takes the digital information captured by the webcam's image sensor back to the computer—from where it travels on to the Internet.

Photo: Unlike the webcam above, which you can focus by twisting its lens, this Microsoft LifeCam VX-800 has a preset focus. If you look closely, you can just see the power indicator light (top left, not currently lit up) and the microphone (top right). The stand can simply rest on a table or open up to clip on top of your laptop.

How does an image sensor chip work?

All webcams work in broadly the same way: they use an image sensor chip to catch moving images and convert them into streams of digits that are uploaded over the Internet. The image sensor chip is the heart of a webcam—so how does that bit work? Let's take a webcam apart and find out.

Take the outer case off a webcam and you'll find it's little more than a plastic lens mounted directly onto a tiny electronic circuit board underneath. The lens screws in and out to increase its focal length, controlling the focus of your cam:

Parts inside a Logitech notebook webcam

Now take the lens off and you can see the image sensor (CCD or CMOS chip): it's the square thing in the middle of this circuit. Only the tiny, green-colored central part is light-sensitive: the rest of the chip is concerned with connecting the light detector to the bigger circuit that surrounds it:

CCD inside a webcam

Here's a closeup:

Webcam CCD or charge coupled device

Webcams versus digital cameras

So the image sensor is the "electronic eye" of a webcam or a digital camera. It's a semiconductor chip made of millions of tiny, light-sensitive squares arranged in a grid pattern. These squares are called pixels. Basic webcams use relatively small sensors with just a few hundred thousand pixels (typically a grid of 640 × 480. Good digital cameras use sensors with many more pixels; that's why cameras are compared by how many megapixels (millions of pixels) they have. A basic webcam has about 0.3 megapixels (300,000, in other words), while a digital camera with 6 megapixels has over 20 times more—probably arranged in a rectangle with three thousand across and two thousand down (3000 x 2000 = 6 million). A better camera rated at 12 megapixels would have a 4000 x 3000 pixel sensor. Take a photo the same size with those two cameras and the 12 megapixel one is going to give you 1000 more dots horizontally and 1000 more vertically—smaller dots giving more detail and higher resolution. A single pixel in a really good sensor is something like 10 micrometers (10μm) in diameter (5–10 times smaller than the diameter of a typical human hair)!

How does an image sensor convert a picture into digital form?

Artwork showing how digital camera CCD works

When you take a digital photo or stare into your webcam, light zooms into the lens. This incoming "picture" hits the image sensor, which breaks it up into individual pixels that are converted into numeric form. CCDs and CMOS chips, the two kinds of image sensor, do this job in slightly different ways. Both initially convert incoming light rays into electricity, much like photoelectric cells (used in things like "magic eye" intruder alarms or restroom washbasins that switch on automatically when you put your hands under the faucet). But a CCD is essentially an analog optical chip that converts light into varying electrical signals, which are then passed on to one or more other chips where they're digitized (turned into numbers). By contrast, a CMOS chip does everything in one place: it captures light rays and turns them into digital signals all on the one chip. So it's essentially a digital device where a CCD is an analog one. CMOS chips work faster and are cheaper to make in high volume than CCDs, so they're now used in most low-cost cellphone cameras and webcams. But CCDs are still widely used in some applications, such as low-light astronomy.

Whether images are being generated by a CMOS sensor or a CCD and other circuitry, the basic process is the same: an incoming image is converted into an outgoing pattern of digital pixels. Let's just refer to "the image sensor" from now on (and forget about whether it's a CCD and other chips or a CMOS sensor). First, the image sensor measures how much light is arriving at each pixel. This information is turned into a number that can be stored on a memory chip inside the camera. Thus, taking a digital photograph converts the picture you see into a very long string of numbers. Each number describes one pixel in the image—how bright or dark and what color it is.

Step by step

  1. Light from the object (in this case, a bicycle) enters the camera lens.
  2. The image sensor inside the camera splits the image up into millions of pixels (squares). An LCD display on the back of the camera shows you the image that the sensor is capturing—not an image of the object seen through a series of lenses (as with a conventional camera), but a redrawn, computerized version of the original object displayed on a screen.
  3. The sensor measures the color and brightness of each pixel.
  4. The color and brightness are stored as binary numbers (patterns of zeros and ones) in the camera's memory card. When you connect your camera to a computer, these numbers are transmitted instantly down the wire.

Who invented image sensors?

The CCD was invented in fall 1969 by Canadian-born Willard S. Boyle (1924–) and American George E. Smith (1930–), two colleagues working at Bell Laboratories (a famous American research center in New Jersey responsible for all kinds of amazing inventions, most famous of which is the transistor). Boyle and Smith were trying to develop a new kind of computer memory—in their notes, originally called a charge "bubble" device—but what they actually invented proved far more useful for capturing and storing images in digital form.

The science behind the CCD (turning light energy into electrical energy) dates back much further—to 1905. Known as the photoelectric effect, it was the first major scientific discovery by Albert Einstein (1879–1955). Einstein showed how a light beam could give up its energy when it hit the surface of a material, knocking out electrons that would then form an electric current—and a quantity of electrons that could be related directly to the intensity of the incoming light. It was for this early piece of work (and not his much more famous later work on relativity) that Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 1921. Boyle and Smith earned their own place in history almost 90 years later when they won the Nobel Prize in Physics 2009 (shared with fiber-optic pioneer Charles Kao).

Comparing webcams

Take apart any webcam and you'll end up with much the same bits and pieces: an image sensor chip, mounted on a circuit board, lurking behind a lens. That doesn't mean that all webcams are exactly the same or that one is just as good as another. In fact, there are two key measurements that tell you how well a webcam will perform: resolution and frame rate.

Resolution

While a good digital camera is designed to capture high-resolution (finely detailed) pictures, a webcam deliberately captures much lower resolution (more blurred, grainy, and "pixelated") images. A typical, standard definition webcam makes images that are about one tenth the size of a typical digital camera, typically either 320 × 240 or 640 × 480 pixels, so each uncompressed still frame would be several hundred kilobytes instead of several megabytes. That means webcam snapshots can be sent over the Internet much more quickly than large digital photos, because there are far fewer bytes to upload and download. Webcams like this can work effectively even with slow, dialup Internet. Modern HD (high-definition webcams) make higher-resolution images than older cams (typically between 1280 × 720 and 1600 × 1200), but still use much smaller-sized files than a really good digital camera. Since they're sending much bigger images, they need decent broadband Internet connections

Frame rate

The frame rate (also called the refresh rate) is the number of frames per second (FPS) that a webcam can handle. Lower-quality cams manage about 24 frames per second, while better ones might reach 50–60. The Microsoft VX-1000 and VS-800 cams in the photos up above come in at a pretty average 30 fps with a resolution of 640 × 480.

What kind of frame rate do you need? The higher the rate, the more movement your cam will capture. In practice, even a low frame rate is good enough for video chat (since you're mostly sitting still staring at the camera) and if all you're doing is uploading still webcam images to a web page (once a minute or so), the frame rate is pretty much irrelevant.

Striking a balance

If your Internet connection is too slow, you won't be able to manage more than a very modest frame rate: even then, you might see a "laggy" image that isn't synchronized with the sound you hear or a "jerky" image with sudden changes in movement. If a high frame rate is important, switching to a lower resolution (or perhaps using black and white instead of color) might cure the problem. In practice, then, you need to strike a balance between resolution and frame rate according to the limited speed of your connection. With a very fast connection, you should be able to manage both a high frame rate and a high resolution.

What can you do with a webcam?

Why on Earth would you want a webcam? There are three main reasons. You might want to video chat with a friend using an instant messaging program, such as Skype. If you have family living in other countries, a webcam is a great way to keep in touch. Or perhaps you want to publish a frequently updated still image of a particular place for others to view on the Internet. For example, a zoo might publish live pictures from its zebra or giraffe house. The third reason is for security. Maybe you want to monitor your home while you're on vacation, check your dog is fed and watered, or keep an eye on a sick or elderly relative. Webcams let you do all these things.

Video chat

Now most people have broadband Internet connections, webcam videoconferencing (or video chat) has become very popular. Using webcams and computers, you can talk to your family and friends anytime, anywhere in the world. To chat to someone like this, you both need a webcam and you both need to be running a video chat program on your computer (the best known example being Skype).

Video chat programs work just like still webcams—only they're uploading photos constantly. Suppose I am video chatting with you. My camera captures a picture of me, turns it into digital format, and sends it my computer. The chat program on my machine "streams" the image information across the Internet to your computer. The chat program on your machine receives the image information and converts it back into a picture, which it displays on your screen. Meanwhile, your camera is doing exactly the same thing with a picture of you and sending it in the opposite direction. This two-way process happens constantly, so each of us gets a constantly updated picture of the other. To speed things up, video chat programs like Skype make a direct connection between your machine and mine, bypassing centralized servers. This very efficient way of using the Net is called (VOIP) Voice Over Internet Protocol and is an example of what's known as P2P (peer-to-peer) networking. You can read more about it in our article on how VOIP works.

Webcam stills

Suppose you want to broadcast images of your garden on a website and update them at regular intervals. You can do that with a webcam. You simply point the cam at your garden, hook it up to your computer, and install a special piece of software. The software captures an image from the cam every five minutes (or at some preset interval) and copies it onto your website using a simple process called FTP (file-transfer protocol). Every time a new image is uploaded, it replaces the previous one on your website. When people look at your site, they see the latest image that your cam has uploaded. Most people design their cam pages so they do what's called a "meta refresh" (automatically reload) every few minutes. That ensures they're always showing the latest image.

A live webcam feed showing the International Space Station.

Here are some examples of webcams that work this way:

Photo: Live feeds from the International Space Station are among the many (out-of-this-world) wonders you can watch thanks to webcams!

Monitoring your home

A smartphone video camera propped up to act as a home security monitor.

Thanks to the Internet, lots more people are getting interested in smart home technology, which lets you monitor and control things like your home heating, lighting, and appliances using smartphone apps (or a simple web interface you can log on to) while you're away.

Monitoring what's happening at home with a webcam used to be quite tricky. You needed both a PC (which had to be running all the time) and a webcam, which you had to set up to upload intermittent still photos (just as though you were setting up a still webcam in a zebra house). Now it's much easier. All you need is a Wi-Fi enabled webcam that can automatically upload images using your wireless router. It doesn't need to be plugged into a computer and you don't need any complicated software either. Some Wi-Fi cams will stream live images; some will record and store them for a few days or weeks in flash memory; still others will upload them to the cloud, where you can browse or watch them later. Home monitoring and security Wi-Fi cams are made by Dropcam (now a part of Google's Nest), Tenvis, Simplicam, Oco, and many others, and tend to be quite a bit more expensive than the kind of basic cams you get for online chat.

Photo: Do my plants need watering? If you have an old smartphone or tablet you no longer use, it's easy to set it up as a Wi-Fi-connected security camera you can monitor remotely. There are quite a few apps that will help you do this (search your favorite app store for "home security monitor").

Can I use my digital camera as a webcam?

If you've got a digital camera already and a webcam is essentially the same thing, it might occur to you to use your ordinary cam as a webcam. Some digital cameras even have a built-in webcam button or mode making it very easy. For others, you'll need to find out if there's a driver available (that's a small file that tells your computer how to use a plug-in device in a certain way). Sometimes people write their own programs and drivers and make them available online for others, so Googling something like "use canon ixus as webcam" will often bring up helpful results.

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However, there's one thing you do need to be very wary of. A USB connection contains a 5-volt power supply as well as a data connection to and from your computer. Plug a digital camera into a USB socket on your PC and it will draw power the whole time it's connected. Digital cameras are not normally meant to be plugged into computers for more than a minute or two at a time (while you're uploading your photos). Leave a camera plugged in for a long time (half an hour or a couple of hours) while you're using it as a webcam and it can heat up considerably, either damaging the camera or overcharging the batteries. Consider that a good digital camera costs perhaps 10–50 times more than a basic webcam and you'll see what a risk you're taking. The message is simple: if you plan on using a webcam regularly, or for any length of time, buy a proper USB webcam. They're not expensive (you can get one for less than $20/£10)—and you'll save damage to your digital camera, which probably was expensive!

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Woodford, Chris. (2007/2016) Webcams. Retrieved from http://www.explainthatstuff.com/webcams.html. [Accessed (Insert date here)]

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