The wild, wacky world of webcams grows up -- kinda

The Web is chock full of cameras targeted at just about anything you can think of

Among IT departments, the main use appears to be server room surveillance. The camera usually has a fixed view across the top of the server racks, but sometimes there is a pan, tilt and zoom control. (In that case, the camera is typically getting input from multiple people across the Web, triggering apparently random motion -- but that may actually enhance security.) Since there is usually nothing in view that an intruder could slip into his or her pocket, the cameras are apparently there to show that the rooms are not currently on fire.

In the consumer webcam market, Logitech International SA is the apparent market leader, claiming to have sold about 40 million units worldwide. Most are used for person-to-person video communications rather than to broadcast pictures or video over the Web, said Andrew Heymann, director of product marketing at Logitech.

In fact, the dominant usage trend is that older users have migrated from video chatting to full video calling, said Heymann. Video with text chatting was the norm five years ago, and the webcam mostly let the user see, in a small window, whoever he or she was text-chatting with. The user multitasked video with typing, he explained.

Full-screen video calling

"Now they do full-screen video calling, with no typing, although video chatting remains popular with younger users," Heymann said. With a high-end webcam (costing about US$100) and a dual-core PC with Skype telecommunications software at both ends of a broadband connection, it's possible to have full-screen 30-frames-per-second video calling, he said. Services other than Skype produce lower resolution, he added.

In terms of hardware, the major trend in consumer webcams is that nearly all consumer laptops reaching the market today have a built-in webcam, said Stephen Baker, an analyst at The NPD Group, a market research firm. "Putting them in the small space available at the top of the display solves the problem of how to get the user on camera," he said. Webcams are also showing up in business laptops, but in the absence of a video "killer app," the complications involved with using them on corporate networks will slow their adoption, Baker indicated.

Inside or outside the office, the webcam trend that gets the most attention has always been lifecasting, where the user puts cameras in his or her living and work spaces to document whatever happens there, mundane or otherwise. The best-known pioneer was, started by a co-ed who began broadcasting in April 1996. She gained enough notoriety to be a guest on a number of TV talk shows, but she unplugged the system at the end of 2003 and now appears to have an unlisted phone number.

Since then, the proliferation of wireless connectivity has allowed lifecasters to bring cameras with them and record all their activities, 24 hours per day. The best-known pioneer was probably Justin Kan, who began broadcasting his life via a hat-mounted webcam in March 2007, again gaining enough notoriety to end up on TV talk shows. He stopped broadcasting on October 3, 2007, but opened his site to anyone else who wanted to lifecast.

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