Viewfinder: Webcams


A webcam was originally defined as a video camera designed to send a video image over the internet. These classic webcams were stationary, mounted on the top of a computer and were ideal for video chatting via IP phone services like Skype. The video resolution of webcams is ideal for the internet. You might note that I didn’t say they have low resolution. When webcams are connected to a TV, the resolution looks grainy. In the old days there wasn’t much need to connect a webcam to a TV but that has changed.

Webcams can now be untethered. Instead of sending their video signal directly across the internet or recording the video onto the local hard drive, webcams can now include a battery and some form of flash memory. Some of these untethered video cameras are identical to their tethered cousins in look, feel, usage and image quality. However things get a little confusing when a video camera records onto solid state storage memory. For example, a video camera with a nice lens that records in high definition is not really a webcam-it is a camcorder. This reminds me of the ongoing debate about a prosumer camcorder vs. a consumer camcorder. It’s often hard to find people to agree on the difference.

Untethered webcams are a big business representing nearly half of all video camera sales in 2008. These are being used in many new and different ways. Because they are so small, people tend to carry them around in a pocket and aren’t reluctant to pull them out to use. People being recorded tend to be more relaxed, acting naturally because webcams look so unassuming. The video recorded in these instances often ends up on social networks like MySpace and Facebook. In fact some of these webcams are wirelessly used via a Wi-Fi connection. Many young people use these at parties and upload the video to an internet video sharing site or to a social network. Tethered or untethered, these webcams are being used for new and different applications that few would have predicted just a few years ago.

Some of these new uses are disturbing when they invade privacy. Voyeurs are hiding webcams in bathrooms and bedrooms. I’m sure lawsuits have been filed after someone finds a video of themself undressing on YouTube.

There are many positive uses of webcams. For example, nonprofit organizations are using these to make the world a better place. The Flip Video Spotlight Program aims to distribute 5 million webcams to nonprofit organizations by 2012. This program hopes to empower staff members or volunteers to broadcast their message to the world and better achieve their program goals.

Video continues to migrate into many aspects of the human experience. Who knows what’s next.

Matthew York is Videomaker‘s Publisher/Editor.

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