Believe it or not, people making art with webcams don’t rate very highly on the priority list for big computer companies. (Who would have thought?) On the PC, at least, there’s a thriving market for webcams for video chat, since so few PCs have built-in cameras. Meanwhile, on the Mac, Apple has absolutely zero interest in you using any webcams other than those built into their machines, or, if you’re lucky, one of the FireWire iSights Apple made before Apple discontinued them. (Given the high failure rate I’ve seen on the iSights, that assumes you’re lucky enough not only to have found one, but to have it still working.) Ditto, naturally, third-party manufacturers, since there’s unlikely to be any significant market for their wares — and they’re busy navigating the morass of driver development complexity on PCs.

Long story short: the Creative Labs Live! Optia I raved about in the fall is one of the few choices you’ve got that doesn’t require drivers. It’s USB video class-compliant, though unlike other USB classes, it’s not entirely clear that that’s all that meaningful.

But, for several glorious months, through last week, I was able to keep my Live Optia working perfectly with Processing (and thus QuickTime for Java) and QuickTime (via tools like Jitter). Until today, that is. Now I’ve got two of them, five Macs to test, and — nada. On 10.4.10 / QT 7.2 and 10.4.8 / QT 7.1.3 and 7.2, I get either a black screen or (in QuickTime video capture) garbled video. It looks like the sequence grabber isn’t properly setting the resolution, so pixels are being dumped arbitrarily from the camera … I suspect the other errors I’m seeing are also related. USB video class support is relatively new; it only hit iChat in 10.4.9 and may have reached the OS at the same time — I would know for sure, except documentation from Apple is scant.

I suspect some misbehaved QuickTime update, though I find it especially odd that it fails on multiple machines (all Intel — iMac, MacBook, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini) with different versions. I’ve tried reinstalling QT, zapping NVRAM (formerly PRAM), the lot. For once, I can’t blame QuickTime for Java, because everything else is broken, too.

Webcams working some of the time under unpredictable circumstances don’t inspire confidence. Suggestions, anyone? Any idea why this is happening? Anyone got a rock-solid solution for Mac webcams that doesn’t spontaneously cease functioning?

Incidentally, Windows isn’t much better; weird driver bugs there can cause fabulous results like an echo-cancellation driver knocking out USB MIDI devices, driver-related blue screens of death, and other goodies.

Maybe I should just start making my own cameras and writing my own drivers. Yeah, that’s it.

  • apple developer

    Any code based on the Quicktime capture api that works with an iSight camera on a mac should also work with any firewire video camera (as long as the firewire drivers for the video camera are on the mac, and most are there since apple does care about connecting to video cameras for things like iMovie or Final Cut). For example, Studio Artist provides iSight video input in the Source area, or for live video textures, or for live video input for realtime MSG processing, and we have lots of customers who use their firewire video cameras for this as opposed to an iSight camera.

    So it seems like you should be able to use any firewire video cameras you have around (as opposed to hunting down dedicated web cams) for live video input.

  • Francois (free)
    & (demo)

    If you want a webcam (USB, as opposed to IEEE1394), check out these links.

    The driver issue you cannot escape.

    I ahve a logitech quickcam 4000 which is supposed to be the most compatible one around, as it has some sort of class compliant driver under linux.
    I bought it for my ADSL TV box for videoconferencing, and it was one of the rare buyable cameras compatible. It works fine on the TV.

    These come with osx drivers, but QT couldn't access it, and it was unable to work with modul8. Darn.

    I Installed the first linked driver and it works fine in auto mode, although options are available for BCS gain, etc… but not when accessing the device.
    Meaning it will only work in auto mode in Modul8 :/

    So, when it comes down to to USB webcams on osx, make sure you make some thorough investigation on the net before buying.

    The newer the webcam, the les drivers will be available. The fancier, the less likely you'll find one. The more options, the less you'll be available to control them.

    To conclude, if it's all about making art with a webcam to get that look, buy a cheap used firewire camera and make it look like a webcam, applying post effects (framerate, gain, clipping highlights…) :p
    Or if it's all about doing art with a webcam, well, do it on a PC haha :)

  • Peter Kirn

    Francois, I hear you, but that's not the issue. The Live Cam Optia IS class-compliant, and Apple CLAIMS it supports that spec — but, at the moment, it appears to truly not be working.

    Sure enough, I just hooked up the class-compliant drivers on Linux, and that's working fine. So, current score: Windows: 1 (plus extra points for having support built-in), Linux:1 (a little bit of work to install drivers, but they're fully community-supported and open source, so I'd say worth that effort), Mac: 0.

    And "research on the net" unfortunately means zilch if Apple keeps breaking parts of QuickTime and the sequence grabber. That's not just about third-party support — on the contrary, it's about the first party (Apple) *squashing* bugs in QT instead of *creating* them. I sure hope the situation turns around in Leopard, because in general, QT 7.x has been a nightmare from day one.

    Lest it sounds like this is just a lot of rage directed at Apple, I think what this also illustrates is the value of having open, community support from people who care (and the device vendors most definitely don't fit in that category, based on experience with Logitech et al). So that can also mean macam on OS X — the irony here being, as I said, that macam actually *doesn't* help in this case with class-compliant cameras.

  • Francois

    I see :p

    Concerning quicktime, I've never had any major problems with it, with the use I have for it.
    To me, it's rather third party drivers that suck.
    That said, maybe in most cases the afore mentioned drivers would be better if apple looked into it and actually cared about third party stuff apart from belkin, griffin, miglia and co.
    There is a "mafia" here. Go anywhere outside the applestore to buy something as exotic as a webcam, and things go wrong.
    I give you that.

  • Francois

    "Live Cam Optia IS class-compliant" in google, first result states compatibility issues regarding osx and UVC with quicktime.
    The U here stands as "Unfinished" for apple, so it seems.

  • M-.-n

    the best USB-cam story is the logitech infames driver that fiddle windows registry so that generic class MIDI gear can't be detected anymore. Try figuring that !

  • Peter Kirn

    @Francois: I know one of those hits on Google is me, though. :)

    UVC was in fact finished and working in 10.4.3, and it worked perfectly for me for some time — somewhere along the line it must have gotten broken. When I have time, I'll have to backtrack and try to figure out where (maybe virtualize an OS and do it that way).

    In the meantime, I was able to get macam working with a $30 QuickTime Chat. Terrible camera, but at least it functions. And this demonstrates the open source macam community seem to be better at writing driver support than Apple (realizing that all of this ultimately sits on top of Apple's support, so at a lower level, it is all working).

    @Logitech + MIDI + Windows = death: heck, yeah, I've had to experience that. Truly hideous. Logitech seems not to care. We've sworn never to let Logitech drivers touch a machine again.

  • gahlord

    I had some good luck with the iFire awhile back. They did get a run of crappy chips from Sony about a year ago (that was your chance for interesting glitchy results, Peter… they really were a joy to watch as they flaked and fluttered). But I believe the issue was resolved. It's been awhile since I tried to use mine though. I loved it. Had a nice little focus ring, a tripod screw and everything.

  • David

    Have you tried using macam? It works as a proxy for pc webcam drivers for your mac (I think). I had luck with it and the logitech quickcam chat on my macbook pro. You have to fuss a little with image size and framerate to make sure they match up with what the camera wants to give you, but the thing works fine.

  • David

    Oops, just noticed that you did try macam. Sorry about that.

  • Chris Kraft

    I don't know if the webcam is good enough for your needs but the webcam made for the XBOX-360 works with OS X out of the box without drivers. At least on my iMac and Macbook. I've read it works on others two.

    At $39 they are pretty cheap. I bought two and plugged both into my iMac at the same time to do funky video experiments.

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  • Ethan

    I have a pair of the Creative Optiva AF cameras w/ a couple iMacs. One camera works fine with QTJ, but two on the same bus are a disaster. The OS drivers fail to name the audio devices uniquely, resulting in all kinds of mess. There may be other problems too. Built-in iSight + Creative is ok, but Creative + Creative (with or without iSight as well) fails.
    I've filed a bug report with Apple.