The swelling ranks of "mouse potatoes", who prefer to view the world through a VDU, will get an extra bonus next month when one of the most ambitious projects to use a Webcam gets underway. The mountaineer Chris Bonington will be taking a system with him on an expedition to one of the last great unexplored mountain ranges in Tibet: Sepu Kangri.
The system will be able to send back both video and virtual-reality pictures showing 360-degree panoramas. "It will convey the beauty and harshness of the climbing in this remote and challenging mountain range," said Planet Net, which is providing the internet connection for www.bonington.com, where the pictures will be shown.
It is a far cry from the first Webcam, which arrived on the Net back in 1991 when it was still the province of academics and the military. A group of students at Cambridge University's computer department, based several floors away from the only filter coffee-maker in the department, got sick of tramping flights of stairs only to find it empty. So they rigged up an "image grabber" to the internal network so they could see the coffee level at any time. One of the students commented: "The image was only updated about three times a minute, but that was fine because the pot filled rather slowly. And it was only greyscale. That was fine too - so was the coffee." Then they put it on the Net (where it still is, at www.cl.cam.ac.uk/coffee /coffee.html). It is generally reckoned to have been the first Webcam on the Net; it is said that it was only when Bill Gates saw it that he realised the potential utility of the internet.
Since then, webcams have proliferated. Want to see what conditions on Everest are like? There's a camera pointing up the valley. Want to see any number of live porn shows? Hi-tech cameras, available once you (bravely) hand over your credit card number, will give you access to TOTALLY NAKED NUDE DANCERS. At least, that is what it says on the welcome pages. The owners of such sites claim to have thousands of people visiting their sites every day. As with many claims on the internet, it is impossible to know how true that actually is.
Some people don't charge to show themselves off. There are hundreds of live webcams around the world, and as technology improves, their size and power requirements are falling exponentially. They can also beam their pictures over radio links to source - which could mean that people will soon start wearing them full-time, rather than just as an experiment (as one student at the MIT Media Laboratory did a couple of years ago).
But webcams may find their ideal use as a way to watch the world without shifting. There is one setup that will show you an hourly view from Antarctica. There is nothing happening, of course, as befits the most desolate continent on Earth. But sometimes, that is exactly what someone trying to escape the pressures of modern life wants. "We all love to people-watch," commented Gary Leach, of Actual Size internet Solutions. "Live webcams are like sitting in a pavement cafe, watching life go by." The virtual cafe? Why, of course - after all, it began with virtual coffee.