When you hear phrases like “security camera” or “home monitoring,” you likely think of hardware, such as Google’s popular Dropcam products. But Andrew Cohen, CEO of startup Perch, says there’s already plenty of hardware: Phones, tablets, laptops, and many TVs are all equipped with cameras. So his company is now offering software that will turn those gadgets—including old leftover ones— into networked security cameras.
“As the years go on and hardware capabilities become similar, software is going to be the key differentiator,” says Cohen. Recruiting people’s current gadgets isn’t so much to promote a homebrew spirit as to free Perch to focus on its software, which promises lag-free video feeds, real-time video chat, and image analysis that can tell what is happening in the home beyond simple motion detection. Perch claims that its apps and service can be set up in minutes—despite running on a hodgepodge of different devices.
It’s one of the first startups to come out of Samsung’s Global Innovation Center accelerator program in New York City (founded in 2013), though Cohen says that Perch will not try to steer people especially towards using Samsung products. “Perch is an independent business,” says Cohen. “Our goal is to be compatible with any home automation system that our customers are using.”
To that end, Perch intends to expand support to as much hardware as possible, including dedicated security cameras like Dropcam, smart TVs, and home automation systems. “We wanted it to be the easiest way to get started doing home monitoring,” says Cohen.
Today, though, Perch is starting with Android (4.1 and higher), Windows, and Mac OS X support to work with smartphones, tablets, and built-in or external computer webcams. The Wink and Samsung-owned SmartThings home automation platforms are also supported in the beta. An iOS app is coming, says Cohen. The mobile app should also work on Android-powered smart cameras, such as the Nikon Coolpix S800c or the Samsung Galaxy cameras, though Perch says it hasn’t optimized the software yet for those devices.
It’s not surprising that Cohen comes to security from the software and web services perspective; that’s his heritage. Cohen was general manager of web link-shortening service bit.ly, and in the process he gained an appreciation for real-time services from Twitter cofounder (and current CEO) Jack Dorsey. “Jack was . . . present when the decision was made to make the [Bit.ly] analytics real-time,” says Cohen.
Typical security cameras have a lag time of up to several seconds, says Cohen. That may seem primitive in a world of real-time international Skype calls, even from sketchy café hotspots. However, “building something like Skype is really hard,” says Cohen. Instead, security cams typically employ a Netflix-like buffering process, which eliminates stuttering but also introduces a lag as the video loads up.
Perch is promising near-instantaneous video by incorporating a technology called Web Real-Time Communications, or WebRTC, an open standard for fast, peer-to-peer audio and video streams directly between clients, be they web browsers (without the need for plugins) or mobile apps. Encryption is also built into WebRTC. Perch has developed a bit of a hack that allows WebRTC to run on its servers, which allows Perch to record and archive the video, as well as perform image analysis.
That’s important for the company’s freemium model. The software and basic service will always be free, says Cohen; and people who sign up during the first month of the beta will also get free seven-day video archiving. “We imagine that for 30-day storage or other storage packages, that is going to be a premium [paid] service,” he says.
Real-time video will allow Perch to be interactive. A humorous example the company provides in a promo video is of the kids and dog running around the living room. That triggers an alert to a parent, who can open up a videoconference on a device like a smart TV and tell the kids to quit goofing around. That’s also where Perch’s homegrown image-analysis algorithms come in. Rather than a simple motion sensor triggering an alert, Perch will be able to analyze who or what is moving around the house.
“One of the main causes of false alarms for motion detection is a cat walking in front of the motion detector, or a dog or pet,” says Cohen. “So just knowing the difference between a human being and a cat is very important.” But Perch isn’t focused just on home security; it aims for overall home monitoring, allowing things to happen automatically based on actions that the user defines.
This could include “the state of your couch,” says Cohen. The software could be set to notice if someone sits down on the couch and communicate with home automation systems to turn on the lights or turn up the heat in the room, for example. “If you want the stereo to blare loud music when your dog jumps on the sofa, to scare off the dog, you can do that,” says Cohen. “You can also set it up so that when the dog jumps on the sofa, the Westminster Dog Show [comes on] the television.”