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Best Use for This Gadget Is Spying on a Pet: Rich Jaroslovsky

There may be a simpler way to monitor goings-on at my house than with Avaak Inc.’s Vue Personal Video Network. If so, I have yet to discover it.

The Vue is an Internet-connected system that enables you to spy, er, that is, watch video feeds and remotely control as many as 50 unobtrusive wireless cameras via the Web or a new, free application for Apple Inc.’s iPhone. It isn’t a full-scale surveillance system -- there’s no motion detection or audio, it doesn’t work in the dark and its recording capabilities are limited -- but it’s very good for occasionally checking up on pets, possessions or family.

The basic Vue system, which usually costs $299 and is currently on sale for $50 less, can be purchased directly from the company at VueZone.com, or through Amazon.com. It consists of two cameras, each about the size of your thumb and index finger when you make the “OK” sign, and a compact, antenna- like device called a gateway. The kit comes with clever magnetic swivel mounts, and extra cameras are $99 apiece.

Unlike some systems, the Vue doesn’t use a Wi-Fi network to carry its signals. Instead, it creates its own network between the gateway and cameras, like cordless telephones communicating with a base station.

Set-up is foolproof. First, you plug the gateway into an Ethernet port on your router. Then, you pair it with the cameras by placing them nearby and pressing a button. That’s it; you can now take the cameras and put them anywhere in the house the base antenna’s signal reaches. The entire process took me 10 minutes -- and that long only because I had to run up and down the stairs a couple times to properly position the cameras. This really is Surveillance for Dummies.

No Software

Each camera, which weighs less than an ounce, runs on a lithium-ion photo battery. Avaak says the battery will last a year under normal use, but gives you two extras, just in case. There’s no software to install; everything is controlled via the Internet, whether you’re in the next room or half a world away.

When you log into the VueZone website, you’ll see a box with thumbnails of the view from each of your cameras. Drag a thumbnail into the viewing pane, and in a moment you’re seeing what the camera’s seeing, live and in color.

In one test, I aimed a camera at the cage our poodle hangs out in when we’re not home, in hopes of answering the age-old question: Just what does Callie do when alone? (The answer: She spends a surprisingly long time sitting alertly in what we call her show-dog pose before finally curling up for a nap.)

Herky-Jerky

How good a picture you get depends on several factors, including the quality of your Internet connection. In my case, I found the image to be adequate, not great; it was grainy, and motion was sometimes herky-jerky.

From the VueZone site, you can adjust the brightness, take a snapshot or record video, either on command or on a schedule. Recordings and pictures are saved on the site, where they can be played, uploaded to Google Inc.’s YouTube or Yahoo Inc.’s Flickr service, or e-mailed. Two gigabytes of storage are free the first year, $19.95 thereafter. You can also authorize friends to tap into your live feed.

As much fun as canine surveillance is over the Web, it’s even more so using the new iPhone application. (Versions for Research in Motion’s BlackBerrys and for phones running Google’s Android software are in the works.) Besides viewing the live feed, the iPhone app gives you most of the same controls you have on the website, as well as displaying a battery status indicator for each camera.

Internet Congestion

I encountered some problems with the Vue system. Using the website from my office computer, I was able to find my cameras on the Internet but wasn’t able to view their feeds; I suspect they were blocked by our corporate network settings. From other computers, the system would usually work but occasionally gave me a message that a camera was offline; Internet congestion may have been the culprit.

Even in a location with a strong Wi-Fi presence, the iPhone app would sometimes present me with a message that the signal was too weak to use. When I switched to the phone’s 3G connection, things worked fine -- a small triumph for AT&T Inc.’s much-maligned network. Avaak says it is aware of the Wi- Fi issue and is looking into it.

The lack of consistent ability to connect is a big reason why I wouldn’t recommend the Vue for any mission-critical job; it’s just too susceptible to the vagaries of the Net. But for casual use, its simplicity and flexibility makes it a terrific solution for, say, checking in on the progress of a home- improvement project -- to say nothing of a bored poodle.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this column: Rich Jaroslovsky in New York at rjaroslovsky@bloomberg.net.

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