In The Picture

June 18th, 2007

Suppose, just suppose, that mankind were descended from cats and not primates (I’m not a fan of Intelligent Design), how different would life be.

Well for a start, all those X-Files episodes shot by the light of a eight-year-old’s birthday cake candles, wouldn’t be half as scary because darkness (the absense of good daylight) wouldn’t be so disorienting. And smell would be very important. Indeed, you might argue that smell-o-vision would have been invented before HD-plasma screens.

Our tree dwelling ancestors, however, lived in scent-heavy forests where lines of sight were less than generous. More important to have good binocular colour vision at distances of up to 30 metres. So why then are people so fascinated by blurry, stuttering images on webcams? Possibly, because, for the first time we are able to sit in our office and watch traffic queues half a world away and think how nice it would be to be stuck in them.

There are whole websites devoted to webcams. For about two years from the window of my workstation at TIME, I ran a webcam which showed the front of Somerset House in London’s trendy West End. Every 30 seconds it took a picture — 320 pixels x 170pixels — of the road outside, at a crazy angle. This was because the tiny camera was perched precariously on the catch of the inner window of the secondary double glazing which did it’s best to reduce the noise from the traffic trundling past on Lancaster Place.

Exciting it wasn’t. It did give a good view of the roadworks outside to strengthen Waterloo Bridge and add an access hatch to the Strand Underpass (which even has its own Wikipedia page). The downside was that you only got a glimpse every 30 seconds or so: even British workmen can move faster than that!

You can observe a lot just by watching.

— Yogi Berra

My favourite webcam site is the Times Square HD webcam, and I once made my own .gif movie prancing around in front of this one at 4am in the morning.

The best webcams obviously have the best views, but it’s not as simple as sticking a camera on some lofty building overlooking a recognisable landmark. Take a look at the Hoe Webcam which sits on Plymouth’s old aquarium site and points out over Plymouth Sound. It’s a lovely view, but nothing (much) happens.

In formulating a policy for placing webcam feeds one quickly comes to several conclusions.

  • It must be a good view
  • Something must happen
  • It must be of sufficient size (dimensions)

One thing people forget however is that what may be mundane and boring to one person may be absolutely spellbinding for another. I lived for eight years in Plymouth and almost never appreciated the beauty of my surroundings. Familiarity breeds contempt.

The technology of bringing video to your website is the topic for a later posting. Watch this space.



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