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Memory Lane - Wake up and smell the webcam

Sat, 09/29/2012 - 6:20pm
Stewart Schley, media and technology writer

The webcam's influence is starting to percolate.

Stewart SchleyWhether the delivery agent is Coca-Cola, coffee or chocolate, a solid jolt of caffeine has fueled the creation of many a technology breakthrough. So it’s only fitting that the first known demonstration of an Internet-delivered photo stream involved the popular stimulant.

In 1991, researchers at England’s Cambridge University trained an experimental camera on a coffee pot in the “Trojan Room” near the school’s Computer Lab. Every second, a video capture board grabbed a frame from the camera, encoded it as a .jpg file and offered it up to a Web server that distributed the images. Thus, early users of the Internet could keep live tabs on the state of the Trojan Room’s coffee maker, day and night, until August 2001, when both the coffee machine and the Web server that made it famous were switched off. Although the final image has been preserved online for posterity, the demise of the Cambridge coffee pot yielded bragging rights to San Francisco State University’s “FogCam” as the longest-running webcam still doing its thing. It began distributing photos of a campus fixture, Burk Hall, in 1994.

It was that same year that a Silicon Valley software engineer named Jonathan Garber invented a device he called the “QuickCam” and sold it through his company, Connectix. Shaped like an eyeball nestled on top of a pyramid, the $100 device could parse out 16 shades of gray at a 320 x 240 pixel resolution, at a maximum of 15 frames per second.

This was a time, remember, when hardly anybody outside of academia had even heard of the World Wide Web. And it was a time when baud rate dial-up connections made viewing any sort of graphical images frustrating and slow. But here was Garber, intuiting that those who did connect to the Internet’s browsable offshoot would want to share images with one another. Time magazine would later name Garber’s QuickCam, later sold to Logitech International, as one of the 100 most influential technology products ever.

Organic growth
Like many of the most successful inventions of the digital age, the webcam came into its own organically, as early adopters discovered and offered up innovative use cases you wouldn’t find in the promotional literature. One of the best known was JenniCam, the 1996 creation of an undergraduate student at Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College who willfully shared images of her daily life – many routine, some risqué – with anybody who wanted to tune in. With more than 100 million visitors a week, JenniCam helped popularize the webcam like nobody else.

The more enduring revolution, though, developed incrementally. By 2005, 16 percent of U.S. adults were using webcams, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. And penetration would spike higher as computer makers began to embed inexpensive cameras into their machines. As of 2011, according to PC World, 79 percent of laptops shipped with an embedded camera. The smartphone revolution – more than 50 percent of mobile phones now used in the U.S. are smartphones, according to Nielsen – only furthers the connected camera trend.

Among companies that picked up the webcam signal was Skype, the Swedish-bred IP voice service. Shortly after its acquisition by eBay in 2006, Skype introduced a video calling feature, supported by webcams, which brought the long-imagined idea of video-enabled phone calls to the mainstream. As of 2011, under Microsoft’s ownership, 40 percent of all Skype calling minutes involved video, and for many, the word “Skype” has become synonymous with video calling.

Webcams are poised to play an even more pivotal role in mainstream life going forward, and the cable industry is a central figure in the progression. New home automation offerings from Comcast and other cable companies make extensive use of webcams as plug-in devices that support remote security functions and let users snoop in on nannies, pets and children. A promotional video for Comcast’s Xfinity Home service, for example, shows a woman spying on her (well-behaved) dog from a living room webcam while she’s sipping a beverage at a coffee shop.

The idea of fastening webcams to walls and ceilings throughout the home seems novel today. But so, at one time, did video calling. Webcam-enabled home monitoring is already starting to become familiar, and awareness efforts from cable and security companies will make it more so. True, it has been a long time since technicians first trained a camera on a simmering coffee pot at Cambridge University. But today, 22 years later, the influence of the webcam is really starting to percolate.

Email: stewart@stewartschley.com

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