Webcams 1: The Old Days, A Personal History

I’ve been pondering a series about webcams for some months. As the use of video becomes ever more commonplace webcams have moved into an increasingly important role in both our personal and professional lives.

My own use of webcams harkens back to around 2000. At that time I was working for an English firm, but working primarily from my home office in Texas. My boss was splitting his time between the UK and an office in the Miami area. Others were scattered about North America.

A dispersed group such as this we were making a lot of use of conference calls to have meetings. Being a smaller, privately held firm, we watched costs closely. We often used the fairly new, free conference services. We were at that point blissfully unaware of the games that they played to generate revenue.

Heck, back then “broadband” was anything over 128 kbps. We enjoyed 3 mbps x 768kbps DSL and I still had multiple analog phone lines from SBC.

Ever trying to improve how the team worked, I stumbled onto a deal on a small box of IBM webcams. These were the very model pictured above. I think we paid $10 each for a box of six, which was about all they were worth. Nonetheless, we were going to try to incorporate video into our weekly meetings, and this was a way to do it on the cheap.

CU-See-Me-Pro-Splash-ScreenTo leverage the webcams we started using Microsoft’s Netmeeting, an H.323-based video calling tool that was included with Windows. Seeking something more we eventually purchased licenses for the commercial version of Cu-SeeMe Pro from White Pine Software.

It’s helpful to put this in context of the state-of-the-art of that time. Back in 2000 the Pentium III operating at 1 GHz was a cutting edge CPU and GeForce 3 was then current state-of-the-art for GPUs. SXGA displays running 1280×1024 pixels were a luxury.

As the Wikipedia entry suggests, at that time the hardware was simply not up to the challenge. We suffered through H.263 encoded video at low frame rates. The actual image resolution varied from “Sub-QCIF” (128×96)  to SIF (352 x 240) in the very best case. The poor image quality ultimately rendered the whole exercise questionable.

It wasn’t until Skype came along a few years later (2003) that audio became reliable and video at least approachable.

However, over time things have progressed. Computers are faster. Memory has become more plentiful. Bandwidth is more readily available. All the while the humble webcam remains the primary way to gather imagery for real-time video communication. In my next pass at this topic I’ll consider some of the webcams that have more recently found their way into my hands.

  • Jungle boogie

    I’m very interested to hear in what cameras you will be discussing!
    The Logitech c910 is a pretty good moderm “webcam” that can deliver HD
    1080 video and its about $50, but after a quick search, it may be harder
    to find as its been replaced by the 920. I think the ground webcams
    will cover will happen faster than what happened at the beginning of the
    last decade.

    I know the polycom vvx 500 & vvx 600 are
    capable of video calls, but are you able to plugin a c910-920 into the
    phone and use it, or must you use the polycom camera?

    • For the Polycom VVX 500 and 600 you must use the Polycom VVX Camera. It is a 720p30 USB video camera.

      • mjgraves

        Yes, as a small test I tried the VVX camera with a PC. Windows recognized the camera in a generic fashion. Of course, the physical construction of the VVX Camera makes ideal for use with VVX-500/600 phones.

  • Trimline

    Gosh, I remember CUSeeMe. Back in the mid-90’s, I worked on the OS/2 Windows version and got the TCPIP stack to work correctly. Geesh, those were the days… cheers.