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Big Digital Brother

A Boulder company has its eye (and eyes) on the Internet.

Around the world in eighty days has been reduced to eighty seconds. That's about the time it takes to call up a Boulder company's Web site and take a peek at any one of the hundreds of real-time images it offers from Bourbon Street to Buenos Aires. Digital Camera Network, at www.dcn.com, claims to be the largest conglomerate of digital-camera Web sites from around the world.

This marriage of video technology and computers was not conceived with such lofty goals in mind. Originally, it was designed to get coffee. In 1991 a group of computer scientists in England got fed up with walking two flights of stairs for a cup of coffee only to find that when they got there, the pot was usually empty. To combat this problem, they set up a video camera and digitized the image of the coffeepot onto their computer screens every few seconds. It was a shock to the scientists when thousands of people a day began to log on to their site after they put it on the Internet as an inside joke. But more practically, the coffee cam launched a new use for the Internet.

As digital cameras got cheaper, droves of people began independently setting up their own cameras and Web sites. Many of these cameras showed slowly changing landscapes, but quite a few were simply shots of offices and company kitchens updated periodically. Digital Camera Network has consolidated many of these "webcams" into one worldwide network. The site offers views from over thirty Colorado webcams, including ones of the traffic on I-25, the snow conditions at Vail and the crowd at the Foundry in Boulder. "The idea is to give the user a feeling for the flow of traffic at a specific location," says DCN vice president Walter Knapp.

Some may get the idea that DCN would be a useful surveillance tool to keep tabs on significant others vacationing at Mardi Gras or carousing at an area nightspot, but at this point, the picture definition isn't clear enough to pick a face out of a crowd. And since the image is updated only every few minutes, depending on the site, a person would have to be at the right place at the right time to be spied upon. (The small cameras resemble traditional surveillance units found in banks and liquor stores.)

For now, it's difficult enough to be spied upon even if you want to be. John, a bartender at the Foundry, says his parents in Massachusetts have been looking for him online without success. "They want me to stand up on the bar and wave so they can pick me out," he says.

But DCN officials say they haven't brought all these cameras together so parents can check up on their kids or bored people at work can go globe-trotting. What they're hoping for is to turn a profit from companies' desire to advertise on the Internet: For a few thousand dollars, DCN will set up a camera and Web site for clients so they can showcase their businesses on the Net in a continuously changing format. And while Knapp admits that DCN is still on the ground floor as far as the medium goes, he has penthouse hopes of using digital-camera technology as a successful marketing venture.

DCN is not the first company that has tried to woo advertisers to the Web with digital cameras. A year-old company called Surf Check of Huntington Beach, California, has a Web site that displays digital shots of surf conditions in California, Hawaii and abroad. Surf Check president Ted Deits's original plan was to have his site bankrolled by advertisers. For a monthly fee, he let local businesses attach their logos to a specific beach on his Web site in hopes of converting this exposure into sales. Deits says the concept was a wipeout.

"Last year a south swell hit Southern California," says Deits, "and the waves were fantastic. On one of the best days our site had 73,000 hits, about 40,000 more than usual." But at the end of the day, when Deits decided to count up all the "click-throughs"--the number of times that a surfer on the Web accesses advertising information after looking at the site--he was shocked. "Out of 73,000 hits, our advertisers got only three click-throughs," he says. "It was at that point that I made the decision to implement a subscription fee. I just didn't feel right selling ads that didn't work."

Deits, who is familiar with the DCN network, says that another hangup for the Boulder company could prove to be its format. "It's sort of like a football game," Deits explains. "You can have a three-hour game with only twenty minutes of real action. With continuously updated images [like those offered by DCN], you may get a lot of shots, but there might be nothing in them. It's entertaining but basically worthless."

To combat this problem on his site, Deits pays photographers to go out to Surf Check's featured beaches and take digital pictures only when somebody is riding a wave. This not only eliminates riderless waves, says Deits, but it also helps online surfers get a better sense of the size and proportions of the surf for their $5.95-a-month subscription fee.

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