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The mighty mini, take two: DIY video baby monitor

What do you get when you combine a new parent on maternity leave with a love of gadgets and Apple products? Why, you get "baby monitor overkill!"

In response to Dave Caolo's recent ode to the Mac mini, I figured it was time to step up. I had two things gathering dust: my old standalone iSight, a gorgeous example of Apple design sadly idle since the advent of built-in iSights, and a lovely new Intel Mac Mini that was recently scored on sale at MicroCenter with plans to set it up for my older two kids once I could get my hands on a small LCD monitor.

I figured in the meantime it would serve nicely as a baby monitor, since I couldn't find a matching transmitter/receiver pair among the various baby monitors I had accumulated over the years. My idea was that it would live discreetly, headless and tailless (monitor, keyboard, and mouse-free) in the baby's room, and broadcast both locally on my network and also wide-area so grandparents could tune in remotely.

For the initial setup, I needed a monitor, but fortunately my TV has a PC (VGA) port, which I used to configure the mini. I set it to login automatically to the main account and join my Airport network. In System Preferences, I enabled screen sharing and added iChat as a login item. In iChat, I enabled Bonjour and instant messaging, added myself as a buddy, and restricted chats to preapproved users under security preferences. Because I didn't want to connect via screen sharing every time I wanted to initiate a chat, I typed the following into Terminal so that it would auto-accept any incoming video chats:
defaults write com.apple.ichat AutoAcceptVCInvitations 1
After that, I set it adrift on the network. From my main computer, I watched the mini pop up on Bonjour after reboot, and we were off and running.

While this worked great for my own local use, it had some inherent restrictions: remote users (aka "grandparents who love to watch sleeping grandsons") couldn't join the chat easily. Spouses at work had issues with company restrictions on AIM. Plus, it was iPhone-unfriendly; the holy grail for me was turning the iPhone into a video terminal that followed me around.

I went through a few different ideas: private channel on Justin.tv (great for multiple viewers, but awash in advertising, restricted at work, and unavailable on iPhone), Skype (great video, automatic call acceptance and limited iPhone capabilities, but terrible for multiple viewers), and complicated setups involving QuickTime Broadcaster. Not wanting to reinvent the wheel (well, no more than I already was doing), I hit upon SJKM's iCam software, which is an iPhone application & accompanying cross-platform video streaming tool specifically designed for video monitoring, available in the iTunes store for $4.99. Initially dismissed for lack of audio, it has since enabled audio monitoring and non-iPhone web access, making it an almost perfect setup. Why "almost?" Well, for reasons I cannot quite figure out, the video is much choppier than AIM, Bonjour, Justin.tv, or Skype. But it works over 3G and Wi-Fi, and it connects multiple viewers without requiring conference setup.

And now, with SJKM's latest update, iCam can run in the background and push notification will alert me to sound or video motion. I have not yet enabled that feature, as it is a $.99 add-on and still pending Apple approval in the store.

Ultimately, I ended up using a variety of different applications, but I can report a lot of very satisfied relatives dreamily cooing at the computer screens from Portland, OR, to Philadelphia, PA. All thanks to the mac mini and the standalone iSight. And one very cute baby (if I do say so myself.)

Upcoming: that's great, but can you make it work in the dark? Adventures in IR.....

What do you get when you combine a new parent on maternity leave with a love of gadgets and Apple products? Why, you get "baby monitor...