A post on security cameras for the blind? Next up, a goldfish's review of mountain bikes. Right? I do not plan to argue that a camera system is as useful for a blind or low vision person as for someone sighted. In fact, I argue that it may be even more important, thanks to two factors. First, most units include microphones that deliver fair-quality audio for live feeds and recorded clips. Second is the ability to share access to the cameras with a trusted sighted person who can access the system from any Web browser or an installed app. I recently installed five cameras around my house, four of which are mounted outdoors. Here are some questions I can now answer for myself or ask my partner, even if she's at work:
- What is all that activity on the lot next door?
- When did my contractors show up and when did they leave?
- Who is on the front porch?
- Is what I'm hearing coming from our yard or next door?
- Is the non-service dog on the kitchen table...again?
- What was that?
I'll describe the Arlo system that I purchased, but this run-through can serve to give readers an idea of what using any such product is like for a blind person. The take-away may be the idea that it can have uses, even without being able to see the video.
Understanding Product Options
Researching this new-to-me product category was not easy, since unbiased beginner's guides seem to be scarce and the usual review sites focus on end-consumer, big-box-store products like Google Nest, Netgear Arlo, Amazon CloudCam, Honeywell Lyric, Ring, and others that focus on cloud-managed, motion-activated video, available in a limited way for only the cost of hardware but often focused on monthly subscriptions that provide advanced features like the ability for alerts to distinguish between people and animals or traffic, continuous recording, and longer-term storage.
Before these cloud-managed products emerged, the security camera market was more of a DIY tinkerer's affair or something for commercial facilities with tech staff. Still, several very affordable types of systems exist, including stand-alone network video recorder (NVR) kits almost as easy to configure as a Nest or Arlo, as well as individual wi-fi or wired IP cameras that connect directly to your wi-fi router. Yet another option, exemplified by companies like Abode and SimplySafe, combines optional cameras with sensors to detect entry or glass breakage and subscriptions for monitoring services. Cloud-managed systems such as the Arlo I'm reviewing cost hundreds more than their NVR-based equivalents, often offer less range and less resolution, and lower water resistance ratings. For example, 2K and 4K video cameras, along with night vision up to 65 feet, are common from brands like Amcrest, Lorex, Foscam, Zmodo, Reolink, and others in this space, whereas all the popular cloud-managed systems are still on 1080p on their top-end products, with night vision of 20-30 feet and IP65 water-resistance instead of IP66 immersion-tested water proofing. Moreover, NVRs store video on your own hard drives, so continuous recording and long-term storage are givens. Cloud-managed systems typically only record motion-based events.
So, with the expensive cloud-managed brands lagging in performance, what do they offer that the better hardware systems don't? From a blind user's perspective, we start with the fact that many (perhaps all?) nvr units are stand-alone Linux-based computers with graphical interfaces connected to a TV or monitor. Client apps and browser interfaces often have limited feature sets or start losing functionality after a number of versions. Since NVRs and DVRs are not accessible for the visually impaired and app support is merely a secondary means of access, this entire category seems out of bounds for blind and low vision users. Furthermore, the importance of reliable sharing of video camera access with designated sighted friends over the Web really points to cloud-managed options as the best choice.
There are other tradeoffs as well. For some reason, the higher-end integrated systems tend to have a wider field of view (120-180 degrees) than standard IP cameras (often between 80-105 degrees). Wider field of view can have the downside of distortion near the perimeters (the "fish-eye" lens effect), but that doesn't seem to be a problem on the wide-angle integrated systems I've considered. The standard mode of connection for cameras to the NVR unit is an ethernet cable that provides both power (POE) and video signal. This is a great option, since it enables very long cable runs without signal degradation and no need for an AC outlet near the cameras. However, it generally necessitates running the cables through the attic and sometimes drilling holes in gables and eves to mount the cameras outdoors, or else dropping CAT6 cable into wall cavities in order to mount cameras indoors. I don't do that. Wireless cameras exist, but they sometimes require plugging in small dedicated access points to both the camera and NVR. While IP cameras with native wi-fi exist as well, I can't quite find information on how these would interface with the rest of the wired system. I can guess, but I would anticipate some hassle and lower reliability. Finally, internet access will require manually opening and forwarding ports on the router software--not very difficult, but something that's always prone to start messing up eventually. Advantages of the cloud-managed systems like Arlo and Nest, in addition to any unique features to the brand, include apps that have a much higher likelihood of remaining current and functional, as well as running on platforms like IOS with in-built accessibility. Second, these systems store video on company servers. On the one hand, this limits one's access and entrusts security to a cloud server. On the other hand, a burglar can't make off with Google's or Netgear's server farms. Remote access via an app is trouble-free as well. Finally, wire-free and rechargeable units make placement far easier.
Cloud-managed brands also integrate other brand-specific smart home devices into their apps. The Nest app, for instance, likewise controls their thermostat, video doorbell, and smoke alarm, and allows for triggered events among devices. The Honeywell Lyric app, while being home to their other sensors as well, does not provide any automation. The Google Assistant can call up camera feeds on a Chromecast, while most brands can do the same on a Fire TV device through Alexa. Currently, Logitech's Circle 2 is one of the only options for HomeKit integration. I don't find much benefit to commanding the cameras with a voice assistant over tapping the app, though, other than perhaps to turn on lights as part of an automation.
Arlo Pro 2 Hardware and Software
I settled on the Netgear Arlo system for several reasons. Where most integrated systems essentially use the hardware to draw in monthly subscriptions for cloud storage and advanced features, Negear provides up to seven days of recordings and access to five cameras without a subscription, which is more generous than other brands. The Arlo Pro 2 cameras offer the flexibility of plug-in or battery-powered operation and have fairly good battery life. Arlo also uses a base station connected to the router using ethernet, and then sets up its own proprietary 2.4 GHz wi-fi network connection to all the cameras, which keeps all the signal traffic from the cameras off the regular wi-fi network; and, because it's Netgear, best known for having excellent range on their routers, I've been able to place cameras 60 feet away, through numerous interior and exterior walls, with rather poor placement of the base station, all without any problems. Finally, the camera can be mounted outdoors, which is a less common feature.
The cameras themselves are a few inches tall as well as deep, and less than two inches wide. They are plastic, with micro-USB power socket covered with a rather loose rubber cover, directly next to a quarter-inch by 20 thread mounting screw hole. Above that, a hemispherical magnetic indention is where the camera snaps onto the half-moon metal indoor wall mount included with the camera. The position of the USB socket is at risk of interfering with the half-moon mount, unfortunately, making it necessary to flip the camera upside down when it's tilted downward so that the cable has enough room. The app allows inversion of the image. For cameras I have mounted in unsheltered areas, I instead use Netgear's overpriced $20 aluminum camera mounts that fit the camera's mounting screw hole (most camera mounts will work, however). The entire back of the camera opens via a flimsy hinge to reveal the cube-shaped lithium battery. The IP65 water resistance rating comes from a think gasket around the battery compartment door and a more substantial seal around the lens. As for the base station, it's a router-sized plastic monolith with two USB hard drive ports, a pairing button on top, and the required power and ethernet connections. The base also features an ear-splitting siren that can be activated from the app or as part of motion-sensing rules.
When plugged in, the Pro 2 buffers 3 seconds of video at all times, ensuring that moments before capturing motion are stored, and allows for a sighted person to set up activity zones to be monitored. Unfortunately, Negear currently doesn't offer an outdoor USB cable or a cable long enough to be useful. So, the plugged-in features are iffy and don't feel fully baked. Also, the microphone is markedly worse on my 4 Pro 2 cameras than my one original Arlo Pro. The older model delivers really clear pickup of the entire viewing diameter, while the Pro 2's sound is far less audible. Since the plug-in features and higher resolution represent the only advantages of the Pro 2, visually-impaired users in particular may opt for the original Pro or a different brand.
The Arlo IOS app has accessibility issues. Similar to my experiences with Netgear routers new and old, I find that Netgear makes no efforts to be aware of accessibility issues; however, on the bright side, their interfaces are generally plain Jane enough that they don't create many barriers as a function of cool-looking graphical representations, either. The Arlo app is usable, but is made annoying by the fact that important unlabelled camera-specific icons appear to be generated dynamically and incorporate status data in the image. As a result, they are extremely difficult to label using Voiceover. I've labelled several states of each of my camera's settings status icons, but either VO is flaky about holding onto those labels or else there's no end to the varieties of icons the app will display to identify each camera. If you only have one camera, this is a non-issue, but it's time consuming to know which of my five cameras I'm about to click on if the labels aren't working. Lastly, while the cameras also have built-in speakers for speaking through the camera, I couldn't get the push-to-talk button in the Arlo app to work until I disabled Voiceover. Without getting further into the weeds, suffice to say that I'm able to use it, but it's not always free of momentary confusion.
What surprised me is that the library of motion-activated clips is usable. Tap on the date, then tap the Filter button to choose which camera's footage to review, along with type of alert, and the time stamps and play buttons appear. Audio is played along with the video clip. For both sighted and blind users, the usability could be better.
The desktop Web browser interface labels the cameras correctly, unlike the IOS app, but I've been thus far unable to filter library clips by camera, at least in Google Chrome. This sort of thing changes rapidly with new browser and screen reader updates, though, and sometimes it's a matter of finding the magical keystroke combination. There's also an Apple TV app. Viewing live footage is no problem, but the library tab is far more difficult to filter than in the IOS app.
Overall, while I can't find a product available in 2018 that would have better served my needs, I don't necessarily recommend the Arlo products over others if they work for you.
Placement and Performance
Pairing each camera was as simple as pressing the button on top of the base station for about three seconds, then waiting a few seconds before holding down the button on the camera for a few seconds (the instructions involve waiting for lights to blink, but this procedure worked without a hitch every time). From there, the Arlo app offered to update the firmware, following which the camera was online. Working atop a step ladder, it only took me five minutes or so per camera to either stick up the indoor mount with 3M double-sided tape, hang the mount on its mounting screw under the eves, or screw the camera onto the outdoor mount and screw the mount to the garage or to a tree trunk. Pointing each camera without sighted assistance required a fairly long trial and error process until I got push notifications in all the places I wanted to capture. The heat-sensitive motion-detection range seems to be limited to 20 feet, and an area only toward the center of the total field of view. Since the provided indoor mounts are magnetic and the camera screws directly onto the outdoor mount, it's important to fix them high enough to be out of reach. Unfortunately, this means that cameras tend to get great shots of people's hats rather than faces. The final step is to adjust each camera's motion-sensing sensitivity to minimize alerts stemming from insects or blowing branches. In the Arlo app, this means going through a fairly tedious procedure for creating "modes" that comprise "rules" for each camera, including whether to activate based on motion, audio, or both; which camera to record from, if any; whether to stop recording after a set time or when the triggering mactivity stops; and whether to notify users via email, push, neither, or both. These features seem standard across brands. Push notifications follow about three seconds after the activity, and the shortest clips seem to be about 11 seconds.
The system I set up is one of the more expensive and elaborate solutions I could have purchased. However, we're still talking about home security for about the price of a flagship smartphone, which seems well worth it; while someone living in an apartment or who was otherwise only concerned with indoor alerts can spend $90-$140, depending on features. Note, too, that prices fluctuated wildly during the period when I was shopping. We've enjoyed learning that a stray cat takes control of our porch when we go away, and we know when the non-service dog is patiently waiting to be let in at the front door. I haven't had any blindness-related uses for the system yet, and no one has made any suspicious moves toward the house. However, I feel much more confident about leaving on trips, and it will be very straight forward to get my partner to tune in live. She also seems to enjoy checking last night's footage to see what the wildlife has been up to. She can see outside even in complete darkness, thanks to the camera's black-and-white night vision, and I have listening posts on all sides of my house.
If you've used other monitoring systems, I hope you'll share your experiences in the comment section.