Want the world in your living room? Webcams make it easy.

To quote the Bard, all the world's a stage and all the men and women merely actors. But even Shakespeare could never have visualized, in his wildest moments of intoxication, just how true those words would turn out to be...

The marriage of cutting-edge digital video technology with the unequaled dissemination power of the Web has made it possible to transmit live pictures from any part of the globe in a simple and inexpensive manner. Consequently, freezing Alaskans can now gaze wistfully at live pictures from tropical beaches, hormonally-unstable adolescents can keep a close watch on the live camera strategically positioned in Jenny's bedroom and stockbrokers in over their heads can watch the Frankfurt DAX plunge lower and lower...and then emulate that plunge from their office window in Moscow!

So, this week, we'll be taking a long, hard look at webcams, the generic name for the technology behind the mayhem described above, followed by our list of the most interesting video feeds online.

Lights, camera...action!

webcam - a WEB page which hosts images or live video streams served by a digital video CAMera attached to a computer.

The basic webcam setup consists of the following three components:

The hardware: This is the digital video camera that actually takes the pictures. It is usually connected to a PC, and comes in many flavours, the most popular of which is the Logitech/Connectix QuickCam.

The software: This is the component that takes the picture from the webcam and uploads it to the Web page at periodic intervals. The image is usually in JPEG format, in order to keep the size down. Needless to say, the computer must be connected to the Internet for this upload to take place.

The Web page: This is where the picture is displayed in its full glory for the rest of the planet to gawk at ;) In order to get the latest shot captured by the webcam, viewers have to reload the page periodically, unless the page owner, out of the kindness of his or her heart, adds some extra HTML code or Java applets to automatically refresh the page every few minutes.

And that's pretty much all you need to give the world an eyeful! Here's how the system works:

  1. Every minute, the camera in the cheerleader's bedroom takes a snapshot of all the activities going on.

  2. This image is then converted to JPEG format by the software and uploaded to a standard Web server, using the active Internet connection.

  3. The eager adolescent finds his way to the Web page and ties his eyeballs up in knots trying to figure out what's what. In the meanwhile, a new picture has been transmitted from the camera to the Web server.

  4. The adolescent gives up on that particular image and decides to reload the page. On doing so, he sees the latest picture, and realizes that what he had previously imagined to be a sheep was actually a pile of old newspapers. Disappointed, he returns to the Playboy site for more immediate satisfaction :)

There are a gazillion cams on the Web - you'll find cams at offices, homes, beaches, bedrooms and tourist attractions...not to mention some other pretty strange places ;) You'll find cams that are live, and cams that aren't, black-and-white cams and colour cams, and even cams that you can control from your browser. But, since this ezine only talks about the best of the best, we're going to ignore the majority of the cams, and focus (pun intended) on the ones which actually have some entertainment value. Here, then, is our guide to the very best webcams on the Net:

http://www.livesights.com/cgi-bin/VideoPages.plx?title=live

Live pictures from a ship traversing the Thames in London. If you watch closely, and the angle and weather are right, you can catch glimpses of Big Ben and the Tower of London. And you can catch up on the latest news from London, view satellite pictures and see how far away you are from London, while you're waiting for the feed to come through. IOHO, one of the coolest cams on the planet!

http://www.ksl.com/TV/traff/traffic.htm

This is a fiber-optic camera network, with cameras located at different positions on the Interstate-15 highway in the United States. Lots of activity, and the night images in particular, with headlights lighting up the road, are worth taking a look at!

http://main.africam.co.za/

Africam is a couple of live cameras positioned near waterholes in the Djuma Game Reserve in South Africa. Live images are captured every 30 seconds, and there is also a remote cam which is constantly moved to areas of interest. While the area is deserted most of the time, we did once catch a glimpse of a hyena wandering around. And in case you don't have our patience, they also have a photo archive with some pretty stunning images!

http://www.pancanal.com/photo/camera-java.html

If ships have always fascinated you, look no further. The Panama Canal, one of the greatest engineering triumphs of all time, has a live camera strategically positioned at MiraFlores Locks to give you a birds-eye view of all vessels travelling the isthmus between two great oceans. And you'll also find a history lesson on the Canal, together with photographs and recent news.

http://www.realtech.com/webcam/

The Manhattan skyline, easily one of the most recognizable views in the world - updated on a regular basis. Not only do you get four different views of Manhattan, but the page also has links to webcams at Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building and other places of interest in New York.

http://www.tf1.fr/livecam/cam.phtml

Ahhh, Paris - the city of light and romance ! This camera, placed on the TF1 tower, provides a real-time view of the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Elysees. Unfortunately, you can't zoom in on those beautiful French women...:(

http://www.kremlinkam.com/

This is a live outdoor webcam, positioned to beam live images of the Moscow River, the Kremlin and St. Basil's Cathedral to viewers around the world. These Russians have some pretty fantastic architecture out there...check it out!

http://www.eyeonbrisbane.citec.com.au/ http://www.aceonline.com.au/livecam/livecam1.shtml

Two of Australia's live webcams. The first is a live view of the Brisbane River, and the second, a view of the city of Perth in Western Australia. And while you're watching, you can also take a look at the weather, or browse through their photo gallery.

http://www.discovery.com/cams/cams.html

Discovery Channel has three webcams on the Net. You can choose from OtterCam (live pictures from the Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program's rooftop nursery at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California), OrangutanCam (from the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.), or SharkCam (from the Hunters on the Reef exhibit at the Waikiki Aquarium in Hawaii). And while you're there, take a look at the information they've put up as well - this is one of the more interesting webcam sites online!

http://www.jennicam.org

The cam that started the craze - JenniCam is situated in Jenni's bedroom, and she's promised never to hide any aspect of her life from it. While this may sound interesting, we're sorry to inform you that it isn't; as a matter of fact, after staring at her bookshelf for a couple of hours, we were more than ready to go elsewhere...and her taste in books sucks too! ;)

http://www.wearcam.org

No article on webcams wold be complete without a mention of Steve Mann, the MIT science student who spends his life with a webcam on his head. Images of everything Steve sees are uploaded to his Web page, thereby enabling you to see what he is seeing...in almost real-time. Heady stuff, indeed! ;)

And finally, the very best webcam site on the Net (drum roll!)

http://f145.ryd.student.liu.se/

What happens when you point a webcam at a bunch of teenagers sharing an apartment in Sweden ? Well, you get The Fish Corridor (aka The Adventures Of The Red Sofa), a live and continuously updated stream of whatever is going on in their apartment. You might catch them having lunch or dinner, watching the telly or falling asleep. And you can even chat with them...they're actually all very nice people, even the teddy bears ;). This particular show stars Erik HĂ€ggblad, Anders Johansson, Daniel Persson, Congo, Eric Tell, Tobias Ekblad, Klara Tjernberg, Anders HĂ„kansson and (how could we forget!) The Teddy Bears. If you want to know where the red sofa comes into it, check out their site...and tell them you read about them in The HITG Report !

Now, we're exhausted...but if you aren't (where on earth do you get all that energy from ?), then you can check out these online webcam directories - they're like Yahoo!, except that they only index webcams ;)

Earthcam [ http://www.earthcam.com ]

CamCentral [ http://www.camcentral.com ]

WebcamWorld [ http://www.webcamworld.com ]

Till next time...stay healthy !

This article was first published on 29 Nov 1998.