The first cam to appear on the Net came from Cambridge in 1992. The Trojan Room Coffee Pot Cam came into being when the computer scientists who worked at the university lab got fed up with walking down flights of stairs to find the coffee pot empty. They set up a camcorder and wrote a programme that relayed the image to their screens upstairs. The project was so successful they decided to put it on the Web. Thousands of people started visiting the site to watch the coffee slowly percolating into the pot.
Since then, cams have been pointed at almost everything imaginable. The virtual traveller can take a look at panoramic views of country scenes and sweeping city skylines. Peeping Toms and wannabe Big Brothers can have a nose around someone else's sitting-room, while Spy Cams capture the everyday dramas of street life.
The competition to come up with new subjects to focus on is fierce. The stranger, the better. There is a Nostril Cam, a Toilet Cam, a Freezer Cam, a Laundromat Cam and a Feet Cam. Pets are also a favourite. Some sites are interactive - one German site pictures a toy railway and allows you to control the trains as they race round the track. Some cams let you look at what other people are working on at their computers.
After the novelty has worn off, watching some of these sites can be a bit like watching paint dry. The real fun is in watching people. Hundreds of people have set up Webcams in their homes and offices. It is surprisingly easy to get mesmerised watching people go about their everyday business - working, tidying, chatting or even staring idly out of the window. The cameras seem to have become part of the furniture.
Brian Cury is president and founder of EarthCam, a searchable directory of Webcams. "Cams are all like Warholism," he says. "Everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame. They're about going behind the scenes and getting the everyday picture. Cams go where TV can't and that's why they're flourishing. They give a whole other level of access, up close and personal."
One Webcam site in New York has become a virtual cult. The Upper West Side Cam shows a busy Manhattan junction from the study of David Spector, an IT consultant. Thousands of people have visited the site since Spector set it up last year. Local residents use it to check out the weather, see what the traffic is like and even to look for parking spaces before leaving work. People turn up with signs and placards to wave at distant friends and relatives. As word has spread about the site, the level of traffic at the junction has grown.
Spector calls it a "Field of Dreams" phenomenon, after the Costner movie. "If you build it, people will come," he says. "I set it up for a lark, but also as a social experiment. A lot of cams are like postcards of faraway scenes. They're pretty, but they don't give a very personal view. This is at street level. It shows a little slice of life and allows people to interact."
Spector gets e-mail from all around the world, thanking him for his site. A French artist wrote that it was like "contemporary poetry". Homesick New Yorkers say it comforts them. "The most charming story I've heard was from a couple whose daughter lives in Stockholm," he says. "The whole family comes down here to wave at her." The couple were so delighted they wrote to Spector, saying "God Bless you, whoever you are!"
Spector says he is glad that his "cult" is such a happy one. But the potential for Webcams to be exploited for other purposes is great. The Living Room Cam, which captures the everyday activities of the Adams Family in Canada, carries a warning to burglars: "Our house has an alarm and we live in a small town where the cops actually show up in five minutes - so don't even think about it!"
Brian Cury of EarthCam says there are some questionable sites in their directory: "There are a few strip bars, but we're not editing them. We're just a directory."
Webcams can also raise privacy questions. The most contentious site so far came from Britain and showed Michael Portillo's doorstep in Belgravia, filmed from an office across the road. BT soon pulled the plug on it, saying it breached its privacy rules.
Webcams are also proving to be a useful means of generating business. Companies show their offices in the hope of attracting business. Panoramic views are ideal sites for tour operators to advertise on. Even people who set up cams for fun are finding that companies want to advertise, if the site is popular enough.
But these ads can make a Webcam seem less personal and spontaneous. The Live Kelsey Cam, which pictures a two-year-old in her playpen, at home near Lake Tahoe, California, carries an ad for camcorder equipment. The caption reads "Live-Cam is great for Grandparents. For just $..."
The EarthCam directory is partly funded by its ads. But they are also beginning to run special events. Last year they Webcast a live concert from a New York record shop. They have also done "behind the scenes" at big sporting events and, more bizarrely, a beauty pageant in Hawaii. But their piece de resistance was New Year's Eve in Times Square.
"We had five cameras set up around the square. Every camera shot was packed with people," says Brian Cury. "But the really amazing thing was that one of the cameras, by freak coincidence, looked down on a police van. You could watch people being arrested and all sorts of bizarre incidents going on. Fascinating"
Cameras by Country
The Trojan Room Coffee Pot
Ken's Freezer Cam
The Amazing Laundromat Cam!
Interactive Model Railroad
Upper West Side Cam
The Living Room Cam
Live Kelsey Cam!
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