Weird world of webcams

 

Roll up, roll up, click here to watch Yellow Wood Llamas feeding at their compound in Southern Indiana. Yes siree folks, the weird, the wild, the wacky or simply the mundane, we have it all - live on the Web. Want to see giant Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches breeding in South Carolina, or take a virtual cabride around New York City? There is plenty to choose from, what are you waiting for? Come on join the webcam cabaret.

Judging from the Big Brother phenomenon, it is no wonder Web cameras are being mooted as the successor to email as the Internet's "Killer-App". As the price of the technology falls, more people are using webcams to broadcast live over the Internet. While some accuse "cam-folk" of being shameless self-publicists, webcasters and businesses are developing practical applications for the latest craze to take root to the Net.

Costing about £100, webcams are an alternative to the more expensive digital camera. Unlike digital cameras, webcams have to be physically attached to a computer to work. However the technology is developing fast. Traditional webcams can produce photographs for the Internet which update from once every five minutes to 30 times a minute.

With broadband Internet connections, it is possible to stream audio and video via webcams. As with e-mail, there are now webcasting services, such as Spotlife.com and Camarades.com, which broadcast and store video free of charge. This means webcasters do not have to set up their own server or website to broadcast live video. Webcams can also be used to record video which can be sent as an e-mail attachment.

The result is a growing webcam community whose online presence ranges from the functional and commercial to the bizarre and seemingly redundant. On the smallest level, people use webcams to stay in touch with others around the world. Where once videoconferencing was the terrain of business executives, webcams now facilitate family-conferencing. People can sit in front of them to see one another as they talk online. Webcam services make broadcasting live video so easy that ordinary folk use webcams to share special occasions from birthday parties to weddings.

Some take a step further and set up their own webcam sites. One such voyeurist is Steph Walker who launched her site, UK Cam Girl (www.ukcam girl.org), about 18 months ago and now has between 800 and 1,010 visitors a day. Costing £1,000 (sterling) to set up, the site's attraction is increasing in line with the popularity of webcam viewing.

Steph was introduced to webcasting in 1998 when she moved into the UK's first online Student House (www.studenthouse.net) launched by a webcam enthusiast. The site currently broadcasts the daily activities of four IT students through the house's five webcams. Steph was quick to realise the popularity of being a Girl on a Cam and now she now runs with the "Top 100 Girls with Cam" - cam girls link their site to the list which is rated by the number of visitors received.

"Cam girls have been around since JenniCam started. The Cam Girl category that I and many other sites fit into is a free site which contains no nudity and is simply a window into the lives of women," Steph says.

Steph's broadcasts are streamed from three webcams, a Creative Webcam 2, a Creative Webcam 3 and a Samsung Camcorder using a standard PC. One cam goes through the Student House's ISDN line, the others are updated through a modem. While visitors need to have a recent version of Windows Media Player to view the streaming cams, the rest of the site is accessible with any PC or Mac.

People's interest in webcams such as Big Brother and Cam Girls, is similar to following a TV soap opera, according to Steph. Her site contains an archive and journal so people can find out what she gets up to on a daily basis. Steph spends about 30 minutes a day updating the journals and maintaining the site.

A risk associated with webcam sites is receiving abusive e-mails. There is a strong sense of community between the Cam Girls, if an abusive e-mail is received, a warning is sent around notifying other girls that they may be the next target. Steph said: "There are times when they make me want to delete the whole site. I tend to talk to other people when I get an abusive e-mail, who remind me that the good outweighs the bad."

Some images on the "Top 100 Girls with Cams" could be construed as suggestive and this could be a problem for other cam girls said Steph. "It prevents some people from getting involved. You have to be comfortable with being on camera. Having a suggestive picture merely entices people looking for a cam which contains sexual content."

Steph and many Cam Girls operate non-commercial cam sites with restricted viewing. Others, such as JenniCam, are commercial sites - where visitors pay for unrestricted viewing.

Now in her final year of BSc Computing (Networks and Communications), Steph hopes to work in web design and said her site has given her valuable experience. "I enjoy being a cam girl as I am part of a community of people which I would not have met otherwise. I expose my life on the Internet because I want to have something on my site that attracts people to it."

Businesses are also picking up on the potential of webcams. Hotels, pubs, tourist boards and commercial enterprises are using webcams for promotional purposes and to drive traffic to their site.

Netcallinteractive (www.nci.ie), a wholly Irish-owned subsidiary of SM Communications (sm-communications.com), was established in 1993 as a vehicle to gain experience on the Internet. Netcall has since developed the Irish Internet Yellow Pages, Holiday Ireland, Dialaring websites and has two webcams giving live views of Lower Gardiner Street in Dublin.

Like Steph's webcams, the feature was easy and inexpensive to set up. As the webcams were an experimental exercise, Netcall adopted the simplest approach using basic webcams with an acceptable level of quality which can be viewed from most browsers.

Based on the response Colm Keating, Technical Director of SM Communications, said: "Webcams certainly have a future, both as traffic generators and as direct tools for services such as customer support, consultancy, weather, security and a myriad of other services."

At the higher end of the market, a greater level of investment is required in hardware/software, Internet bandwidth and technical expertise. Dublin Corporation's traffic cams are an example of a practical application for streaming cam images online.

Dublin Corporation has 40 traffic cameras located around the city and plans to increase this to 70. Streaming the images onto its website, www.dublincorp.ie, was an afterthought to complement its online traffic radio service, Traffic FM, and soon to be launched online car park information section.

Since March of this year 36 of the Corporation's traffic cameras have been available on the site. Radiomation customised the software for the traffic cams to take images generated by the traffic cameras in standard video format and digitalisethem into jpeg format for the Web. This means the traffic cams can be viewed from any browser without requiring real players or other software packages.

Michael Farrel, managing director of Radiomation, said: "The cameras are working cameras monitoring traffic conditions. They are not on the Web to entertain but to provide public access to the same views as the traffic control staff."

The Web images are taken when the traffic cameras are in a home position to ensure there is no infringement of public privacy. On average the images are updated every 90 seconds to two minutes but can take up to 15 minutes to update depending on how often a camera is at its home position.

The least foreseen aspect of the initiative has been the influx of overseas visitors to view the cams. In July the site had a record number of 25,177 visitors with 33,384 hits per day. The most requested pages were the traffic cameras. Sixty-two per cent of all visitors were from the US, 23 per cent were from Ireland and 15 per cent were from other countries including the UK, Australia, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan, Sweden and Quatar.

Netcall has also experienced a positive feedback from abroad. Some viewers use the webcams to check out "the lie of the land" before they visit Dublin, while Irish immigrants visit them for nostalgic purposes. Some people have personalised the cams by arranging with friends or family to look at them when they are "on location".

Keating said: "One very enterprising gentleman went to the bother of laying out a big I LUV YOU message drawn in white on two black liner bags and placed in view of one of the cams. We have also been contracted by an individual involved in a traffic accident in view of a cam looking for evidence to assist with his case."