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Going Away for the Holidays? Skype Yourself!

By Joseph Moran

Many of us tend to spend extended periods of time away from home during the holiday season. If you'd like to be able to keep tabs on things back at the fort in your absence, one way to do it is with a webcam and Skype's free VoIP service.

To be sure, using Skype for video monitoring has limitations. However, it's easy to set up because it doesn't require any network configuration or firewall tweaking, and it's relatively inexpensive because it works with ordinary USB webcams.

For purposes of this article we'll assume you neither own a webcam nor have a Skype account already. Later, we'll outline what you should know if you currently use Skype and you want to add monitoring to the mix.

Lights, Camera, Action!

The first thing you'll need is a webcam (or several if you would like monitor multiple rooms). Webcams are rather inexpensive. You can get a good one for around $30 online, and decent ones can be found had for as low as $10 or $15 these days. Make sure you get one with a built-in microphone if you want monitor audio as well as video. Skype should work just fine with pretty much any modern USB webcam, but if you're buying strictly for monitoring purposes don't bother with pricier models that have pan/zoom capabilities — these features don't work within Skype.

After you set up the camera on your PC per the manufacturer's instructions (this works on a Mac as well), head over to www.skype.com to download the appropriate version of the software; then install it and follow the automatic prompts to create a Skype account. This account will be used solely for remote monitoring, so create a generic account name (e.g., myname.remote) and enter something more descriptive — like "My Home Camera" — in the Full Name field. This latter moniker is what will appear in your Skype contacts list. Unlike the account name, it can be changed at any time.

Once you're logged into your newly-created Skype account (we'll call this the monitoring account), select Tools, then Options. Now select Calls, Call Settings, and click the Show Advanced Options button. Set the Allow calls from… option to "only people in my Contact List," and make sure there's a check next to Automatically Answer Incoming Calls.

Now select Video Settings. It is also found under the Calls menu. Skype should automatically detect your camera and display a live preview window. This is a good time to position the camera for the view you want. If you don't see any video, specify the correct source using the Select webcam menu. Make sure both the Enable Skype Video and Start My Video Automatically Ahen I Am in a Call options are checked. Then go to Audio Settings, make sure the microphone selected is the one from your camera, and save your changes.

Phone Home

Now you need a second Skype account (let's call this the away account) from which to contact the monitoring account. Create your away account using a different computer. From the Welcome to Skype login screen, click the Don't have a Skype Name? link. If you're already a Skype user, you can skip this step and just use your regular account as your away account.

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After creating or logging into your away account, click Add Contact, type in the name of your monitoring account, and click Find. When it comes up in the list (verify that it's the correct one, as account names can be similar), click Add Skype Contact, then click OK when the pop-up box appears. Over on the monitoring account system, a similar window will appear asking you to confirm you want to share contact details. Click OK there, too. At this point, your two Skype accounts should appear in each other's contact lists.

Now it's show time. Call your monitoring account from your away account. Within a second or two you'll be seeing and hearing what's going on in that room. Although you're doing this from within your home network, it will work exactly the same way when you're away from home. Obviously, you'll need to ensure the webcam-equipped PC is on, running Skype, and logged into your monitoring account. (The system can be locked, however.)

As mentioned earlier, you can monitor multiple rooms in your home with this method provided each has its own PC, webcam and Skype monitoring account. In this scenario you can use each account's Full Name label to distinguish between different rooms (e.g. Office or Bedroom).

One final note: It's important to not use a Skype monitoring account for any other communication, because Skype doesn't currently offer a way to customize the response to incoming calls from different contacts. Put another way, any contacts you add to your monitoring account will be able to call in and be automatically connected with audio and video, and you don't want that. Therefore, to conduct Skype phone calls and videoconferencing on PC you also use for monitoring, do it with a separate account and remember switch to your dedicated monitoring account before you leave.

Remote video monitoring via Skype is no substitute for a system specifically designed for the task, but in many cases it can be an easy and cost-effective way to do basic monitoring.

Joseph Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.
For more help, check out the PracticallyNetworked Forums.

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