Who needs cable? Broadcast free on the Web with a webcam

Want to know the weather conditions in New York City right this minute? Or maybe you
wonder whether smog is concealing the famous Hollywood sign overlooking north Los Angeles.


You can find out instantly on the Web, and not by checking a weather map, either. Point
your browser to http://www.realtech.com/webcam/
to see a real-time view of New York from the 77th floor of the Empire State Building.


The Hollywood sign appears on another Web site, just one of hundreds of live remote
views presented by today's hottest Web trend: the webcam.


Webcams started out in Internet cafes and spread to users who like to star in their own
live shows. But webcams aren't just for exhibitionists and voyeurs. Webcam sites can be
useful tools for almost any office or agency. It's essentially a license to broadcast
television for free.


Have you ever wished for an inexpensive way to monitor a remote site? Wired security
cameras cost a considerable amount to install and even more to monitor. You can take
remote readings from a digital instrument using conventional hardware, but it involves a
lot of expense and technical savvy.


A webcam gets around these drawbacks and can even show you how deep the snow is at a
remote site where you'll have to travel to fix something.


A webcam is essentially a low-end videoconference system that uploads images to the
Internet at set intervals. If the remote site already has a computer and Internet link,
all you need to add is an inexpensive camera and some specialized software.


If the remote site has no computer or Internet link, pull out one of those old 486
PCs--virtually any PC that can run Microsoft Windows 95 will have enough resources.


The cost of setting up a Point-to-Point Protocol Internet connection will seem pretty
small compared with running a TV cable hundreds of miles. You'll also need a telephone
dial-up connection and a Hypertext Markup Language Web page.


The HTML Web page requirement is extremely basic. Almost any Internet provider offers
it standard or as a low-cost option. No Java capabilities are needed.


A black-and-white camera will cost less than $100; color runs less than $300. If you
don't absolutely need color, go with the less expensive camera because it will consume
less bandwidth sending grayscale images.


To monitor the webcam view remotely, you merely log on to the Web page from anywhere in
the world.


Connectix Corp. of San Mateo, Calif., makes inexpensive cameras suited for webcam use
that are quite easy to set up. The special software you will need captures an image at
preset intervals, then connects to your Web page and updates the image. The $89 ISpy
package from ISpy of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, is a good choice. See http://ispy.nl for more information.


You might also want a dedicated light source or a tripod, depending on your remote
situation.


No need to dedicate a powerful computer to operating the webcam. Given some memory
elbow room, you can continue to use the PC for regular office work.


You don't even need a dedicated phone line. If the line is in use when an image is
scheduled to upload, the software just waits until the line is free. If you're surfing at
that time, the update will piggyback on the current session. That will slow during the
upload.


Want to see some examples? Check out http://www.camcentral.com/
for an indexed catalog of 1,116 mostly live cameras with hot links.


Need a government example to convince a supervisor? Go to http://www.ambitweb.com/nasamsfc/nasamsfc.html to watch what's going on at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.


Although this column concentrates on computers and software, I occasionally run across
a gadget that deserves mention because of the innovative way it applies computer
technology.


I recently picked up a set of digital headphones, but not for my PC or CD-ROM player. I
bought them to keep out sounds. I dislike working around noisy air conditioners and
computer cooling fans. Aircraft cabin noise, which lulls some people to sleep, just gets
on my nerves.


The sub-$100, lightweight digital headphones from Noise Cancellation Technology Inc. of
Stamford, Conn., cancel out background noise by audio feedback. They come with a tiny
computer control box known as a NoiseBuster.


Two AAA batteries will run the NoiseBuster for about a week in normal use. The
NoiseBuster also has connectors to link it to your notebook computer or to in-flight
entertainment.


Unlike earplugs, the NoiseBuster still lets you hear normal speech and other sounds,
either on or off. In fact, you can hear them more easily because the background noise is
gone.


If you travel with a multimedia notebook, I strongly recommend the NoiseBuster. You
need headphones anyway, so why not get a pair that makes your entire trip more pleasurable
and productive?


The NoiseBuster is perfect for noisy environments where you still have to hear and talk
to co-workers. It makes everything from Bach to Queen sound great on a portable CD player,
too.


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at powerusr@penn.com.


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