Webcams: You\'ve Got the Whole Wide World in Your Hands

Published November 16th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

By Nigel Thorpe  

Chief of the English Copy Desk 

 

Webcams are clearly here to stay and now with the emergence of the wireless Web, live images from around the world will literally be in the web-surfer's hands. 

The October edition of the "Scientific American" revealed that companies such as Nokia, Ericsson, and Motorola, are working on 3G (third generation) "super phones" that will look very different from today's cell phones. The new super phones will show high-resolution graphics and video on miniature color screens and accept inputs by means of a keyboard and a 'pygmy' mouse. The most advanced designs also feature a touch-sensitive screen and stylus similar to those used in existing Palm machines. The new handheld computer will, however, have a built-in antenna to allow Web access without the use of wires. Existing devices are crippled by the slow speeds of wireless data transmissions (a sluggish 10 kilobits per second), which becalm Web surfers in the digital doldrums, and rules out the downloading of video, audio, and other data-intensive files into a handheld device.  

The 3G wireless networks now on the drawing boards of telecommunication companies, however, target a data transfer rate for mobile devices as high as two megabits per second (approximately two hundred times the present rate) allowing the user to download webcam images, songs and moves from the web. 

What is the difference between "livecam" and an webcam" image that can be downloaded into today's desktop computers? As geeks will tell you, the two terms are not really clearly defined; the term webcam" picture is used to describe any image which is uploaded (generally by means of File Transfer Protocol (FTP)) onto an Internet site. A 'livecam" is a webcam" which is constantly renewed by uploading at short intervals (usually every 5 seconds to thirty minutes) or on a continuous basis. The most technically advanced sites provide real time streaming video from both famous and bizarre locations around planet Earth. Webcam hardware is based on the camera equipment techniques originally used as a tool for video teleconferencing. Now, however, the transmission system is used increasingly for its educational and entertainment value. 

The numbers of webcam sites mushroom daily and over 26,000 can be accessed from many web-link sites. As the worldwide web becomes studded with such a galaxy of multifaceted eyes, it becomes essential for the web-surfer to utilize a reliable search engine and searchable directory for online cameras such as those used by Webcam world.com, Cammunity.com and Worldwide Webcams. 

The variety of webcams is even more amazing than their numbers. Indoor cams are becoming more and more popular in the home and workplace as the WebCam craze with its army of live video cameras, storms the World Wide Web. The voyeur surfer can tap into a gallery of live "peeping tom pages" such as Jennycam, whose exhibitionist owners have invited webcams into their homes, private lives, and even their trash cans and refrigerators. In the words of Elektrolux Real Fridge Cam, "for the first time in history, a live camera reveals the secret life of groceries and other consumer products that dwell in a fridge. See red tomatoes relaxing in the grocery box. Study the social life of lemon yogurts and speculate on the thoughts of assorted groceries. Await with excitement the next grand opening. Who will open the door next? Will it be mum, dad, one of the sisters or perhaps the cat? The site should perhaps carry a health warning that it is unsuitable for surfers of 'a nervous disposition'. For those who care not for the antics of a hot dating Jenny, or the cold mysteries of a suspenseful fridge, there are always the "watch the paint dry" sites featuring empty night cafes and humble backyards. Kevin's Garden cam site, for example, complete with a misty view of a backyard and obligatory sleeping cat, proudly announced that I was the 31,964th victim to view the soporific scene.  

With more obvious viewer appeal are the 'on the job' webcams that explore every minute of somebody's working day. Tune into NY-taxi.com for a unique online taxi cab view of the big apple, or travel down south to Daytona Beach, Florida to jeweler Henry Jordan's workshop's for a jeweler’s torch blow by blow account of how to make and repair fine jewelry. In March 1999, Henry's site scored the highest website "hit count" (nearly 1.9 million) yet recorded. 

Outdoor cams surpass indoor cams in their variety and number allowing access to live city and country scenes twenty-four hours a day. Global time differences, however, can cause problems if you jump carelessly from time zone to time zone. My last views at night from the summit of Mount Rushmore, and of the Sidney Bridge were indistinguishable from the rear end of black hole. One useful way to check times on the other side of the globe is to access live webcam views of famous city clocks such as Big Ben in London. The Big Ben cam sites, and many other outdoor cams, allow you to generate a Webcam E-card to send to your friends with a personalized message. 

Other city webcams send you on live visits to destinations such as Karlskrona in Sweden, Toronto, Montreal, Glasgow UK and many other metropolises around the world. Increasingly, streaming video provides a live view of city life. 

Scenic views are even more numerous with Webcams covering the steamy eruptions of Old Faithful in Yellow Stone National Park, the spray-fringed thunder of the Niagara Falls, and the russet fall and sunset colors of Mount Washington’s forests. 

Webcams can also be married to high-tech instrumentation to produce a prodigious stream of data as well as pictures. If you are worried about "the big one,” check the KNBC seismographs in California. For the ultimate "down under" pictures, check out the weather and webcam vistas from the Mawson Station in Antarctica. The wealth of meteorological data, which is updated every twenty minutes, would be a gold mine for high school math and science projects. The clean cool images of dark blue skies and sparkling white ice also dispel the popular misconception that it is always snowing at the South Pole. 

Webcams also allow the web-surfer to "dive down under" into the aquaria and oceans of the world. Waikiki Coral Cam and many other aquarium and marine sites provide stereoscopic movie clips of the formally inaccessible world beneath the waves.  

Snapping sharks, colorful coral, and swaying seaweed are just a few of the animal and plant images captured by NatureCams. If the private lives of tarantulas, Giant Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches, or naked mole-rats are not to your taste, you can always watch cannabis plants grow, Llamas feed on a Llama farm, or check out the mating habits of mountain gorillas.  

For those interested in "fringe science" and the paranormal a webcam high above a loch in Scotland and in a haunted library offers the lucky web surfer the chance to see the Loch Ness Monster and the odd passing ghost. 

On a more practical, and down to earth level, RoadCams and TripCheckCams offer the careful motorist the chance to choose the best route and avoid traffic jams and bad weather conditions on the road ahead. 

As highlighted by the Scientific American, the handheld 'super-phones' or 'compufones' of tomorrow are likely to be an indispensable tool which allow you to check travel plans, purchase airline tickets, select a seat on a plane, check bank balances and stock exchange prices, and phone home, all at the touch of a screen at any time and from any where in the world. 

Some of existing Webcam views are literally out of this world and allow you to check out the latest spectacular astronomical views from NASA's Hubble telescope, or obtain a live update on Martian weather from the Mars Global Surveyor space craft. The growing number of extraterrestrial webcams means that owners of a 3G 'compufone' will soon "have the whole wide universe in their hands.” 

Its also a safe bet that the 4G or 5G 'compufone' will allow future generations of web -surfs on the integrated lunar, space station, and world wide web, to follow the first astronauts on Mars every three-dimensional step of the way. 

© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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