A simple plug computer webcam (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 10 Apr 2011

A simple plug computer webcam

I was asked to give a talk on plug computers ("sheevaplugs") at a local LUG. I thought at first I didn't have much to say about them, but after writing down an outline I realized that wouldn't be a problem.

But plugs aren't that interesting unless you have something fun to demonstrate. Sure, plugs can run a web server or a file server, but that doesn't make for a very fun demo -- "woo, look, I'm loading a web page!" What's more fun? Hardware.

The first step to running any hardware off a plug computer is to get an upgraded kernel. The kernels that come with these things can't drive any useful external gizmos.

I've often lamented how the folks who build plug computers seem oblivious to the fact that a large part of their potential customer base wants to drive hardware -- temperature and light sensors, weather stations, garage door openers, servos, whatever. By not including drivers for GPIO, 1-wire, video and so forth, they're shutting out anyone who doesn't feel up to building a kernel.

And make no mistake: building a kernel for a sheevaplug is quite a bit harder than building one for your laptop or workstation. Some of the hardware isn't supported by fully open source drivers, and most Linux distros don't offer a cross-compiler that can do the job. I covered some of the issues in my LinuxPlanet article on Cross-compiling Custom Kernels for Plug Computers.

Fortunately, the sheeva.with-linux kernels include a webcam driver. That seemed like a good start for a demo.

A simple webcam demo

My demo plug is running Debian Squeeze, which has a wealth of webcam software available. Although there are lots of packages to stream live video to a web server, they all have a lot of requirements, so I settled for a simple snapshot program, fswebcam.

The command I needed to snap a photo is:

fswebcam --device /dev/video0 -S 1 output.jpeg
The -S 1 skips a frame to account for the fact that my cheap and crappy webcam (a Gearhead Sound FX) tends to return wildly striped green and purple images otherwise.

So I run that in a loop, something like:

while /bin/true; do
  fswebcam --device /dev/video0 -S 1 output.jpeg
  sleep 2
done

Now that I have a continuously updating image, I need to run some sort of web server on the plug. Plugs are perfectly capable of running apache or lighttpd or whatever server you favor. But for this simple demo, I used a tiny Python server script: simpleserver.py.

Then all I have to do is a simple web page that includes <img src="output.jpg"> and point my computer at http://192.168.1.102:8080 to see the image. Either refresh the page to see the image update, or add something like

<meta http-equiv="Refresh" content='2'>
to make it refresh

The next parts of the demo added an Arduino to the mix. But this is already getting long and I'm out of time ... so the second part of this demo will follow in a day or two.

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[ 21:18 Apr 10, 2011    More tech | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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