We’ve been doing the bubble cam for over 20 years now, and it has gone through quite the history of “how it works” revisions.
January, 29 2001
The bubble cam is born…
The Bubble Cam was Andie’s idea. She has always enjoyed bubbles, both as a kid and as an adult. It seems we’ve always had bubble toys around. Halloween 2000: Andie purchased a high-volume bubble machine to blow bubbles when the kids came to the door. She started out by letting it run continuously, but the machine would run out of bubble juice in less than 30 minutes. Mike rigged up a remote control to turn the bubbles on and off from the front porch. The visiting kids loved it. Andie said, “it’s a shame people can’t turn on the bubble machine from the internet.” That was the idea that set Mike into “tinker mode.”
Originally, in 2001, we used streaming camera software on a Windows 98 PC running Windows web server software. A cabled camera was connected to the machine via a video-to-USB adapter. When you pressed the “bubbles” button, the webserver triggered a custom Windows program Mike wrote to talk to a “Smarthome” Powerlink computer interface. This interface used old X-10 technology for wall power adapters similar to today’s Alexa, WeMo, Samsung SmartThings, or TP-Link power adapters. Unlike these newer devices, which communicate over WiFi, the older technology used the power lines in your house to transmit “on” and “off” signals and was far from reliable.
For the first several months, the bubble cam sat on a table on our patio. However, we later moved it to a custom-built “bubble hut” elsewhere in the yard so we could reclaim our patio and enjoy outdoor dining without being blasted by bubbles.
The bubble “hut” sheltered the camera, the bubble machines, and a hefty supply of bubbles. The photos don’t show it well, but the house also contained a UPS for power protection as well as lightning protection for the camera’s Ethernet cable. The bubble house was built so that when hurricanes come along, we just empty it out and lay it face down (photo) on the ground.
Bubbles were filled from a 7-gallon jug fitted with a “bottling spigot” and picnic tap, which are all leftover homebrewing supplies from our home-brewed beer phase. This allows us to pre-mix two or three weeks’ worth of water and bubble solution. We found we needed to cut the bubble solution with water, using three parts bubble solution to one part water. This keeps the bubble solution from getting too thick due to evaporation on hot summer days. It also allows us to make a supply of bubble solution last longer.
The camera was quickly upgraded to a D-Link DCS-1000 Ethernet camera. This camera has its own web server responsible for serving up the video stream. The camera was plugged directly into our computer network hub through an Ethernet cable with lightning protection on both ends. These cameras would last around three years, so we did pretty well with them until they stopped making them and we could no longer find cost-effective replacements.
After hurricanes Francis and Jean hit us back-to-back in 2005, we upgraded the “Bubble Hut” into a more windproof Bubblecam corral. It held up well and resisted a couple of similar hurricanes without any trouble. It had shutters to protect the camera and supplies, which made hurricane prep for the bubble cam easy.
For some reason, we can’t locate pictures of the Bubble Cam corral, but in 2011, it was infested with bees, so here is a video of Mike removing the bees after purchasing a bee suit (hey, what could possibly go wrong?)
After a hurricane knocked half of our privacy fence down in 2015, we built a new fence and, along the way, got rid of the bubble cam corral in favor of something much more simple. We put the entire bubble setup on a concrete bench under an awning. This gave us the benefit of being able to see the bubbles outside our dining room window, and it was easy to put away for a hurricane.
At the same time, we could no longer find acceptable internet cameras, so we switched back to a security camera and started using Netcam Studio software running on a Windows PC to distribute the video feed to the internet.
We gave up on the old X-10, Insteon controllers for triggering the bubble machine. They were poorly supported, outdated, and failed frequently. The solution was to switch to an Arduino ESP8266 chip, which is a single-chip Arduino with WiFi capabilities built into the chip.
For those not familiar with Arduino, it is an inexpensive “microcontroller” with lots of opportunities to connect to the outside world and do real-world things such as sense soil moisture and activate valves to water your plants when the soil gets too dry. Lots of geeks write programming code for these chips to do all kinds of real-world things so it seemed like a perfect match for the bubble machine. As with most open-source projects, geeks build on code already written by others. This is what Mike did to create a custom bubble cam controller.
Written in C++, the code includes a small web server and the ability to host small web pages such as http://bubblecontroller/ON.html and http://bubblecontroller/OFF.html. Mike wrote a new version of the Windows software to interact with the Arduino via its built-in web server.
End of 2021 / Beginning of 2022
We decided to go mobile-friendly since we’ve been getting most of our viewers on iPhones or Android devices. We got rid of the Windows server and are now running on Linux/Apache/MySql/PHP and WordPress. We still have a Windows machine distributing the video, but Mike is looking for a Linux alternative.
The custom Windows program that controls the bubble cam has been replaced with a WordPress plugin Mike wrote that uses PHP on the back end to communicate and make HTTP requests to the Arduino controller. The Ardunio software had to be updated to support http://bubblecontroller/ON.html?20 (basically accept a parameter that says how many seconds it should run).
Finally, Mike found a Linux alternative to distributing the video feed and we’re completely divorced from the Windows operating system. This means the entire project can consist of a bubble machine, an inexpensive IP security camera with night vision, an Arduino controller to turn the machine off/on, and a Rasberry Pi which is capable of running the entire website.
We were in our early 30s when we started this and we’re now in our 50s. While we’re not throwing in the towel yet, we want to make sure this is our gift to the world so we’re working on going “open source” which means we’re giving away the technology so others can set up their own bubble-cams or web-interactive device.
We’re now the proud owners of bubblecam.org where we’ll begin building a complete “how-to” and possibly sell complete kits with profits going to charity. Currently, bubblecam.org is parked and not a live site. This isn’t coming quickly. We both still have day jobs but will move this forward as time permits. Anyone interested in contributing or collaborating should reach out to us via our contact form.
Anyway, that is the history thus far. We’ll update this page if we make any new “history.” Until then, please feel free to visit and blow bubbles as often as you’d like. We’ll be sure to keep plenty of bubble solution on hand.