If you happened to be watching the Late Show with David Letterman Thursday night, you probably saw the segment featuring ``Jenny.''
Jenny is a 22-year-old woman who has placed a video camera in her apartment. The camera is on all the time, sending pictures to a Web page where anyone in the world can observe whatever Jenny happens to be doing at any given moment. Her aim is to allow her life to be studied and observed much in the same way that we might watch a family of gibbons on some wildlife show on the Discovery Channel.
Let's set aside for now the discussion about whether this is a remarkable sociological experiment, or simple exhibitionism, or something else. It is simply one of the more unusual ``Web cams'' on the Internet.
A Web cam is a camera that is connected to a computer that is connected to the Internet. Some sort of software running on the computer takes a picture periodically and stores the picture in a form that can be displayed on a Web page. The pictures are typically updated at some interval, ranging from a few minutes to several hours.
There are many different kinds of cameras on the market that can be used as Web cams. Simple black and white, low-resolution cameras such as the Connectix QuickCam cost less than $100, but more expensive color cameras with higher resolution are available at a higher cost. Some cameras may include the necessary software, but if not, there are several free or shareware Web cam software packages available for both Macs and PC-compatibles.
One of the earliest Web cams provided a view of a coffee pot in an office at a university. The image was updated every few minutes, providing a way to monitor how much coffee was in the pot at any given time. If you were ``lucky'' you might even see a shot of someone's hand reaching for the pot. Another early Web cam effort was the FishCam, which provided a view of the aquarium in the office of a Netscape programmer.
At this point you may be wondering why on earth anyone would want to watch someone else's coffee pot -- after all, if you are really that bored, there are always the shopping channels on cable and Lawrence Welk reruns on PBS. But when the technology first became available, many people just wanted to try it out and prove that it could be done. And some of the simplest sites from the early days suggested that other, more innovative applications were just around the corner.
Web cams today can provide not just still images, but live or recorded video in various formats. For example, a day care center is considering installing a Web cam so that parents can watch how things are going throughout the day. Some people install Web cams at home to keep tabs on what the kids are up to after school.
Today there are Web cams everywhere. Many of them are outdoors, providing Web surfers a view of the weather in some faraway place, or a glimpse into what's happening on a certain street, in a theme park, on a mountain top, or somewhere else. A good place to start looking for Web cams is Leonard's Cam World at http://www. leonardsworlds.com/camera.html. Leonard's site provides links to hundreds of Web cams in the United States and around the world, including a ``Cam of the Week'' and a link to ``Cool Cams'' and sports stadium Web cams. There are animal cams for watching wildlife, restaurant cams and disco cams for watching nightlife, dozens of TV news station cams, and even model railroad cams. Leonard's site purports to be ``family-safe,'' and this is important because there are some Web cams out there that are inappropriate for younger surfers, some that are simply in poor taste and some that are potentially offensive.
Another way to search for Web cams is to visit Yahoo! (http://www.yahoo.com) and go to the Computers and Internet section, where you'll find a link to Interesting Devices Connected to the Net. Follow that link to ``Web cams'' and you'll find more than 600 Web cam links.
There's a Web cam in Lawrence at the Lawrence.com ``Live Cam'' page at http://lawrence. com/livecam/livecam.html. It provides a view of Massachusetts Street, looking south from Sixth Street and is updated every five seconds.
-- Doug Heacock is executive director of the Kansas Research and Educational Network at Kansas University. You may address questions to him in care of the Lawrence Journal-World, 609 N.H., Lawrence 66044, or e-mail him at heacock