'Webcam Laboratory' does for webcams what Dr Who did for the phonebox. Roger Frost is impressed
Webcam Laboratory is a surprising piece of software that turns your regular web camera, costing you little or no extra money, into a fabulous tool to record or measure. You instantly get a time-lapse camera; a tool for kinetics and a real-life data-logger.
Everything is easy to master but the most familiar is a ‘time-lapse’ feature where you can film, say, clouds moving in the sky. The only thing to do is fix the camera steady and set the program to take a snap every few seconds. In the same way you could record the movement of the sun through the day or catch a flower opening in the morning. And of course you can choose to set the thing to start tomorrow or record from right now.
There’s more, which is not only clever, it ticks numerous lines in the syllabus under the heading of ‘kinematics’. For example, if you swing a pendulum in front of a web camera, and click the pendulum bob in the movie, the kinematics program will actually recognise and follow the ‘bob’. If you put a ruler in the frame, you can calibrate the setup with the exact distance that the pendulum moves. The very worthwhile result is a wavy graph as the pendulum swings. The plot not shows the pendulum’s position but also its speed and acceleration. And the great thing is that you see this ‘live’.
Being able to measure things in a movie window makes possible lots of physics experiments and also adds a lot of measuring to sport or athletics. Thus you can follow a toy car rolling down a slope or do similar with a real car or a person doing the long-jump.
But the most innovative tool in this suite is a ‘universal logger’ where you can actually take readings from other devices. Normally you’d read and put the results in a table. For example, you can film a thermometer and calibrate the movement of the top of the red liquid. You can also follow the needle on an ammeter but you’ll be astonished to be able to read numbers from a digital scale. It’s impressive and better seen in the video (above) but also notice that the results are plotted on a graph live as they change.
The output of Webcam Laboratory might be a jpeg photo; an Excel file or a movie file which are universal formats and not too limiting. So you could splice movie file into some editing package or upload it to YouTube. If you’re thinking different you could contribute your discoveries to Scicast, an easily recommended community where students demonstrate science and film their projects.
'Webcam Laboratory' ought to re-start interest in using software tools in science
The help for Webcam Laboratory is on video and minutes spent watching are repaid with useful skills for experiments and projects. The software maker has sensibly separated each tool to keep each one simple enough. Everything is driven by icons to enable international use but leads to my quibble that you’ll do a lot of guess-clicking unless you recall the tutorial video. Its pop-up ‘tooltips’ are too terse to really help, but this is trivial given a program which is something of a game-changer.
Overall I think Webcam Laboratory puts your finger on the button for good science experimentation. It’s also good that there’s no black box doing magic and the measuring is pretty much in your face. I’d be sceptical of claims implying that it replaces thousands of dollars worth of laboratory equipment. I’d prefer to say Webcam Laboratory deserves to be sold alongside laboratory equipment rather than in place of it. It does a number of new things and old things well if not brilliantly.
Webcam Laboratory ought to re-start interest in using software tools in science. It goes where bland tools like Excel and Powerpoint are unable to go.
Again watch the videos and realise how much is possible...
Ratings (out of 5)
Fitness for purpose 4
Ease of use 4
Value for money 5
Highly versatile software that allows webcams to be used for a variety of purposes, including time-lapse photography, data-logging and measurement. Price for 5-computer licence £189. Single computer and site licences are also available from TAG Learning.
TAG Learning Webcam Laboratory web page
Webcam Laboratory website
Download free trial version
Roger Frost is a long-time enthusiast of data-logging in schools and is the author of a number of publications on the subject. He also creates animated digital resources for science, such as his acclaimed Organic Chemistry. At BETT 2012 in January, he can be found on the gallery stand SW62 showing new materials for Organic Chemistry.