There are many fascinating and educational things you can see on the other end of a streaming video connection. But did you know that some of them aren’t porn? Ever since the original Coffee Cam, webcams have been a popular pastime: by design there’s always new content so it’s an endless way to avoid what you’re meant to be doing, and like that original caffeine-monitor some projects meet with unexpected success after saying “Let’s just put it online and see what happens”
1. Ground Zero Cam
Got goals for the next few years, be they a better job, moving out or looking for love? Keep track of your personal timeline with the ultimate long-term alarm clock. Cameras monitoring the reconstruction efforts at Ground Zero provide constant coverage of a testament to human engineering, dedication and sheer hard work as the Freedom Tower is constructed on the site of the World Trade Center.
Race the workers to their goal – the Tower is scheduled for completion in 2011, so that gives you three years to achieve your objective – with a 24/7 reminder that whatever you’re doing, others are doing something much bigger and harder. And if you’re still where you are by the time they finish a half-kilometer tower, well, maybe that’s where you deserve to be.
The camera equivalent of a lava lamp – simple, stupid but utterly compelling. A real testament to the miracle technology we’ve got running these days, instead of running one of those (hideous) fishtank screensavers you can ‘simply’ connect to an aquarium hundreds or thousands of miles away (or even on the other side of the planet). This submerged surveillance system is an amazing leveler of the species – the fish never get bored of swimming in circles, and once you spend a few minutes tuning in to them you’ll look just the same, blanks eyes with your mouth hanging open until it’s feeding time.
3. Lucky Dogs
The biggest online audience behind those ogling lovely lady flesh online is, well, those ogling lovely male flesh. But after that you have a more-PG (but equally obsessed) horde drooling over pictures of puppies and kittens. In a fiendish combination of audience-grabbing and free advertising, Lucky Dogs of Colorado have set up webcams in the play areas of their dog care facility.
This provides all the computerized canine-addicts with their daily fix of active animals, allows customers to check out how their dog is doing anywhere, and provides extraordinary advertising for the business – “We are so confident we will let the entire world watch us at work.” When somebody says that, you know they’re somebody you can trust with your animal, or at least you know you’ll have video evidence for your lawsuit if something goes wrong.
4. News Studio cam
For those who prefer their internet-viewing more on the meta-side, how about watching the news – as it happens! – as the news reports on the news as it happens, as it happens. Confused yet? A Fox news studio has set up a live webcam allowing any who wants to watch the preparations, the sneezes, and all the other things that seem to stop once the ‘real’ cameras start rolling. Warning: hate to disappoint you, but the anchors actually do wear pants under the table.
5. Wish you were here…
Research shows that exactly “however-many-are-working” percent of the American population wish they were somewhere else. This may explain the popularity of webcams like The Great Pyramids, The Acropolis or such sunny destinations as Hawaiian beaches. You would think such cameras would be unpopular – unless you’re Indiana Jones nothing exciting actually happens around pyramids, and many of these tourist destination webcams can look like nothing but lower-resolution postcards. Every since Athena got out of the business of being worshipped by and punishing willing males around two and a half thousand years ago not much has happened in the Acropolis- and let’s face it, even if she got back into it nowshe’d have stiff competition from the other camgirls.
But that would be to ignore the vital psychology of the webcam – sure, that building may have remained unchanged for thousands of years, but I’m looking at its unchanged facade right now. This sense of immediacy has a powerful effect on the human mind – while we’ve upgraded our rocks and spears to silicon systems, the brain still basically thinks “If I can see it then it’s there”, and the knowledge of real-time viewing allows us to enjoy that sensation more fully. And of course the psychological touchstone of knowing that, no matter what else happens in this crazy world, you can boot up your browser and check “Yep, those thousands of tons of stone are still there.”
The Hawaiicam is also a great example to “user-controlled cams” – webcams which claim to operable by the viewer. The vast majority of these work by community rule, taking the average instruction over tens or hundreds of controllers and doing that. Any of you who’ve ever been in a large crowd of people trying to make a decision will realise that this means precisely nobody is happy, ever, and the camera tends to jam in one corner wiggling back and forth. Still, nice beaches though.
6. …and glad you aren’t here
No matter how bad things get, no matter how low your 9-5 grinds you, there’s always an instant boost of self-stimulating Schadenfreude available from the Anchorage DMV. In a stroke of sadness-sharing genius that we can only hope was rewarded, possibly with a Doctorate in Philosophy, someone has captured the sheer face of human misery for all the world to see – not as an art exhibit, not as a heartbreaking ode, but as a webcam. The quiet desperation of those trapped in the DMV queue is available for all in a display of soul-crushing poverty of joy that would make Nietsche put on a party hat and say “Nihilism isn’t so bad, let’s rock out!”
7. Microsoft World Wide Telescope
All the above were simple streaming browser-based beauties. The World Wide Telescope needs a full twenty-one megabyte download and even an “installation”, but I assure you it’s worth every second of your time. A polished viewer that ties together images from around the world and a number of space-satellites, this looks like it should be on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, not the desktop of a spreadsheet-jockey.
The ability to pan and zoom an little thing called “THE ENTIRE SKY”, locating or identifying specific stars or features. As you zoom in the software updates the images with data from little things like the CHANDRA X-ray observatory. NASA’s multi-million dollar hardware at the beck and call of anyone who’s interested. Which should include you – that’s the whole universe up there, and I assure you it looks better than spinning text, flying toasters or that bloody dumb 3D-pipes screensaver you’ve got running.