Imagine watching a home burglary in real time. Now imagine that it's your home.
That's what happened to Vince Hunter of Dallas last week as he and his wife were visiting family 1,500 miles away in Connecticut.
On Friday, while Hunter was out pumping gas, a $4.99 iPhone app called iCam sent Hunter a text message that the motion detectors in his house had been activated. Using his phone, he was able to watch live video captured by webcams he'd installed around his home.
"I check the footage, and see in real time guys in this area, and they're kind of hunched over. They'd just broken the glass. I said holy cow, I gotta call 911," he said.
Alerted by the same message, Hunter said his wife called, and he asked her to notify the security company.
"I go back to the footage, sure enough, they're in the backyard checking things out. They're throwing bricks ... at the tempered glass and they can't break it three times. Finally, it appears they wind up and kind of go back in that area, and they just hurl this brick through the glass and ... this brick ends up in our living room," he said.
As Hunter continued to watch, he saw the police arrive a few minutes later, guns drawn. But the burglars had already taken off, spooked by the home's alarm system.
"You know, it was surreal. It really was. The first thing I couldn't believe is that we could do this on our cell phone. Really? A cell phone?" he said.
The Hunter's home had been broken into before, so they had invested in an elaborate security system. Three different cameras allow Hunter to watch surveillance video from any computer. But with the iCam app for his iPhone, he can watch the video from anywhere in the world.
This time, Hunter watched as the robbers ran away empty-handed. But his neighbor wasn't as lucky.
Police believe the pair cleaned out her house just minutes before reaching the Hunters' home.
"They're just hoodlums! The fact that they just keep doing this over and over ... they have to be stopped," said burglary victim Julie McDonald.
As police try to track down the thieves, the footage captured on Hunter's iPhone will help them.
"The neighbors did see the car take off, so we've got a visual on the car, great video on the two suspects," Hunter said. "We really want to get them caught. There's a lot of burglaries in this neighborhood. And I think the software on our phones really helped out. I mean, it really made a difference."
If you want to use your iPhone to protect your home, you can follow these simple steps:
Download iCam to your iPhone or iPod Touch and the iCamSource program to your webcam-equipped computer.
Start the iCamSource application on your computer and follow the directions on the setup screen, including selecting the camera and entering a log-in ID and password.
Launch the iCam app on your phone and enter the same log-in ID and password.
The program lets you stream video and audio from up to four computer webcams at the same.
The downside to this system is that it uses computer webcams, which makes it difficult to use the computer for other purposes.
Another option, which will free up all of the computers in your home, is the Dropcam Wi-Fi security camera.
For about $200 and a $10 monthly fee, all you need is Wi-Fi to monitor your house from anywhere in the world, using your computer or mobile device.
Motions trigger alerts, which are sent to you via text or e-mail. Then you can watch the video from your phone. The interface is dead simple and takes only five minutes to setup.
One drawback to security systems like these is false positives, set off by roaming cats or dogs. But some programs include a thumbnail image of what the camera sees in the alert text or e-mail. That way you can know if the motion sensor was activated by a real intruder or your pet.