21st: Be there now

Cyberspace isn't just disembodied information. Webcams, the Web's windows on the world, knit the Net to the physical spaces we inhabit.

By Thomas J. Campanella

Published August 7, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

i have never been to Zagreb, Croatia, yet many times I have seen the twin spires of its cathedral silhouetted against the sky. I have never set foot in Jerusalem, yet on most days I see the faithful gather at its Western Wall. I have never visited Moscow, but I do know precisely when the snows vanished from its boulevards several months ago. I don't live in New York, but I can tell you if there is a cab waiting on the corner of 73rd Street and Columbus Avenue, or if there are people lunching in Bryant Park.

In fact, anyone with access to the Worldwide Web can do the same, thanks to webcameras, one of the remarkable, unintended precipitates of the Information Age.

Webcameras open up a whole new channel of experiencing what scholars call the "built environment" -- that part of the world built by humans. They enable us to visit cities and rural landscapes around the world in real time. In doing this, they derail many common assumptions about how new media and the Internet are changing our relationship to the built environment.

Before dismissing webcams as a fad of small consequence, consider what they enable us to do. Webcameras are tiny windows through which we catch glimpses of far-off worlds. These are often blurry views, hesitant and out of focus; but they are live, composed not of inert data stored on a disk, but just-gathered pixels streaming through a lens. Webcameras collapse the immensity of time and space into the click of a mouse. For the first time in history, an individual has the power to observe, at any hour, cities and landscapes around the globe in real time (or close to it). By clicking from one camera site to another, we can watch the sun rise successively over Asia, Russia, the Middle East, Europe and North America. We can watch the same day begin and end in a dozen different cities.

Recently, in a dramatic expansion of human vision, millions of Web surfers have scanned the rock-strewn fields of Mars each day, through the lenses of the Mars Pathfinder. The images of the Red Planet that beamed onto my laptop had traveled through space to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., from where they were broadcast by NASA Select TV and mirrored worldwide on the Internet. The worldwide demand for the view from Mars broke Net records, and webcam coverage of Pathfinder marked the arrival of Web-based telephotography in the popular imagination. In the first seven days of the mission, more than 1 million video feeds were delivered to desktops around the globe.

Today Mars, tomorrow your street corner. Webcams are liminal agents, spores of geography in a placeless realm. They link the world our bodies inhabit with the universe of information where we nourish our minds. The hundreds of sites that have gone live in the last few years represent a remarkable grass-roots effort to identify landmarks and stake out familiar terrain as we take deeper plunges into cyberspace. They are an effort to infuse an uncharted realm with keepsakes of place. If nothing else, webcams demonstrate that we are more attached to the physical landscape than we may care to admit, and that we possess a real longing to give these places meaning in cyberspace.

Few sites better illustrate this than David Spector's Upper West Side webcamera on Columbus Avenue in New York. One of the most popular in operation today, Spector's unit sits in a second-floor window on the corner of 73rd Street. In addition to the live image of the street, the site is stocked with minutiae about the neighborhood, identifying each of the shops and storefronts visible in the frame. And people want to see this place to the tune of several thousand hits a day. They pose in front of the camera for relatives on the other side of the world; former residents look back on their old haunts; others come simply to watch the endless flow of cars and pedestrians on a New York boulevard. It is both a snapshot of a place-bound community broadcast into cyberspace and a fragment of cyberspace redolent with a sense of place. The Columbus Avenue webcam begins to answer Stephen Doheny-Farina's call for a technology "that somehow reintegrates the elements of our dissolving placed communities."

The technology of webcams is not complex. A frame from a video camera is captured at a fixed or variable interval and then posted on a server, so anyone with a browser and a modem can steal a peek through that camera's lens. More sophisticated sites push (or try to push, given bandwidth constraints) a live stream of images. Most webcam sites don't require visitors to use special extensions or plug-ins. The software is largely home-grown, by webcam mavens such as Toby Doig (aka "Binky the Wonderhorse") in the U.K., developer of WebCamToo, and Jacques Mattheij in the Netherlands, whose proprietary MCS-WebCam is capable of delivering a feed of up to 10 frames per second (one-third that of TV).

By most accounts, webcams trace their origins to the Trojan Room Coffee Cam in the Arup Building at Cambridge University. There, in 1991, Quentin Stafford-Fraser, a computer scientist who was working on high-speed ATM networks at the time, set up a frame-grabber and a small camera aimed at a coffee machine. He wired it to the network, enabling researchers in remote parts of the building to check the availability of coffee before making the trip downstairs. Later made accessible on the Internet and still in operation, the Trojan Room Coffee Cam has become one of the most famous sites on the Web; the pot itself is probably the most-viewed urn in the world.

Not long after, a Ph.D. student at the MIT Media Lab named Steve Mann strapped a remarkable wireless unit to his head and began streaming live images to the Web. By logging into the Wearable Webcam site, visitors see whatever Mann sees, vicariously entering his world. The first time I checked out Mann's site, he seemed to have been lecturing to a group of students who, slumped in their seats, looked like they were enduring a post-lunch food coma.

By wearing his contraption in public (he scared the hell out of me one night on the MIT campus), Mann has experienced first-hand some of the stickier issues about webcams. Some folks are just not thrilled by the prospect of being pixelated for a potential audience of 30 million people. Invasion of privacy is a real issue: It is very easy to set up a unit to spy on someone, especially now that we have become accustomed to little video cameras sitting on top of our computers. In a feedback thread on a U.K. live-feed webcam site -- the Trinity Square Street-Cam in Colchester -- one woman wrote: "Big brother is watching us and we don't like it! It is unnecessary and infuriating. We have no choice but to be in view going to work; people can see us locking [and] unlocking staff codes, etc., which is not good for us. We are ANNOYED!"

The potential for mischief is well worth monitoring, but it should not obstruct the sense of wonder that webcams bring to our desktops. After all, we have been under surveillance for decades now; we scarcely know when our image is being digitized by a closed-circuit television camera, and for what purpose. As long as webcams are aimed at the public realm, vigilance is in order, but not paranoia.

By 1995, as the Worldwide Web became well established in popular culture, hundreds of cameras came online. Cruising the some 400 sites that are running today is like going on a great global photo shoot: Some scenes are prosaic, others sublime. A camera in Paris is trained on the Seine and the Eiffel Tower, another at a research base in Antarctica, where glaciers can be seen in the distance. Mount Shasta in Northern California is now live on the Web, as is Mount Fuji on the other side of the Pacific. The rooftops of Cambridge, England, can be pulled into focus. An Andalucian coastal scene is fed live onto the Web, capturing waves as they crash on the rocks. New cameras have gone live recently in Warsaw, Poland; Karachi, Pakistan; Prague, Czech Republic; St. Petersburg, Russia; Capetown, South Africa; and Hong Kong, where several cameras were set up to witness the colony's historic transition to Chinese rule. More cameras are added every week, and their distribution is beginning to circle the globe.

The most advanced webcams are those that offer remote-control capability in addition to streaming video. France Telecom recently installed such a unit at Rockefeller Center in New York; another is the webcam at Cafe@BoatQuay in Singapore. (The Singapore cam, alas, has been broken for several months now, as webcams often are.) Located at a waterfront cybercafe, the camera is fully telerobotic, enabling visitors to move and zoom the unit using navigation buttons on their browser. The user thus enters this real space on the other side of the globe, and may peruse the shelves, "visit" with patrons at the tables, or move outside and watch the tide lap at the sea wall. The resolution is so fine -- and the camera's telephoto so lens powerful -- that you can actually focus in on the sugar crystals on the rim of a coffee cup or read a menu posted on a wall. (Commands from different users are executed on a first-come, first-served basis.)

It's profoundly thrilling to nose around in this way, amid a roomful of people in a country on the far side of the globe. Even the most convincing virtual-reality environment cannot replicate the experience. At the other end of the modem is not some data on a CD-ROM, but real people, drinking real coffee, in a real city on a real waterfront.

If networked computers represent an extension of the human brain, perhaps webcams are the extension of the human faculty of vision. With these devices, we may yet "wake up to find out," as the Grateful Dead used to sing, that we are "the eyes of the world."

Thomas J. Campanella

Thomas J. Campanella writes about landscapes, cities and the impact of technology on the built environment. He is a doctoral candidate in the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT. While procrastinating from his dissertation, he created the Wired Eye, which Cybersmith has called "the best, most organized webcam site we've ever seen."

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