The History of the Webcam

By Erik Devaney

A webcam is an input device that allows computer-users to share what they record with viewers who are connected to the Internet. While people commonly use webcams for person-to-person communication, the inventors of the webcam did not originally design the device for this purpose. Its inventors were not trying to revolutionize the way we communicate; they were trying to save themselves unnecessary walks to the coffee pot.

Underlying Motivation

The idea for the webcam dates back to 1991, when Cambridge University researchers began looking for a way to remotely monitor the coffee pot in the Trojan Room of the Computer Science Department. The researchers wanted to be able to see the coffee pot from their desks, so they could tell whether the pot was empty. That way, the researchers wouldn't have to waste a trip to the Trojan Room for coffee before it was ready. The first strategy the researchers used in 1991 was to train a digital camera on the coffee pot and wire it to their computers. A specialized software allowed the researchers to view the camera's images.

Breakthrough

In 1993, the Cambridge University researchers in the Computer Science Department took their remote coffee pot-viewing experiment a step further by updating the images of the digital camera in the Trojan Room to the Internet. In the process, the researchers created the world's first webcam. The researchers accomplished this feat by developing a remote procedure call mechanism known as MSRPC2. The mechanism operated over the multi-service network layer protocol, which was a network protocol that researchers had designed for use with ATM machines. Using the MSRPC2 mechanism in conjunction with a computer's video capture board allowed the Cambridge University researchers to upload one frame per second from their coffee pot camera on to the web.

Commercialization

While researchers at Cambridge University invented the webcam, they did not design and sell webcams for widespread use amongst consumers. The now-defunct Connectix Corporation has the distinction of being the first organization to produce commercially available webcams. In 1994, Connectix released the very first commercial webcam, the QuickCam, which sold for $99. The QuickCam had a maximum recording resolution of 320 horizontal lines of pixels by 240 vertical lines of pixels; it could display 16 shades of gray.

Revolution

The webcam did not come into widespread use until the 2000s. As "PC World" points out, by 2003, Apple, Microsoft and Logitech were designing and selling webcams. The demand for the webcams rose rapidly due to the development of video calling, which all of the major instant-messaging service providers began offering in 2003. As of 2011, people commonly use webcams for real-time, face-to-face communication. One of the most recent webcam innovations has been the incorporation of webcams into mobile devices, such as smart phones.