The evolution of the webcam over the years

With more and more workers trying out hybrid work models, our reliance on webcams is at an all-time high. Whether you rely on a video connection to make important work calls or just want to connect with friends and family, the humble webcam is a very powerful tool.

There are a lot of things to consider when buying your next professional webcam – there are even video bars to consider. This article explores the evolution of the webcam over its short three-decade lifespan.

Ancient history

Video transmissions and broadcasting were nothing new, but in 1991 curious workers at the University of Cambridge in England wanted to experiment by bringing a live stream straight to their computers.

The assignment was to remotely monitor a coffee maker in the computer lab in the Trojan room – a different room from where the staff would work. Rather than connecting with people (as is the case today), this group of employees wanted to monitor whether the coffee was ready to drink without wasting time and disrupting their productivity.

In its first iteration, this first webcam was connected by wire under the office floor to provide a live video stream capturing three frames per minute using in-house built code.

The team continued to develop and work on the product. A year later, it was connected to the Internet with the frame rate increased to 1 fps.

The camera was shut down forever in 2001 after an entire decade of monitoring coffee makers.

Marketing

Beyond in-house experiments, Connectix Corporation is credited with producing the first commercially available webcam which was released in August 1994. It cost $99 (adjusted to today’s standards, which equates to approximately $188).

Originally compatible with Apple’s Macintosh, the company’s QuickCam webcam connects via a VGA port. Support for Microsoft computers was released a year later in October 1995.

The QuickCam shot at an incredible 60 fps, although footage was only captured in 16 shades of gray. Later, support for 256 shades of gray was added, but the frame rate for this was reduced to 15 frames per second, still acceptable.

The resolution was less than impressive by today’s standards, measuring 320×240 pixels in a 4:3 aspect ratio.

The year 1996 saw the introduction of the first laptop computer with an integrated webcam, although this IBM machine was particularly expensive at $12,000 (equivalent to $21,503 today).

One of the earliest reported uses of a webcam is 1996’s JenniCam. Jennifer Ringley, then 19, installed a webcam in her college bedroom in Pennsylvania and started a new phenomenon that would come to be known as of lifecasting. The camera, broadcasting on its own website, remained active until 2003.

The first video conferencing suite, Microsoft NetMeeting, became available in 1996. It supported video up to 30 frames per second, although broadband connections were not widely adopted at this point, so it was mainly used by corporate clients.

Widespread adoption

The turn of the century saw huge advances in technology across the board, felt especially by home consumers.

In the early 2000s, Apple, Microsoft, and Logitech were all designing their own webcams in order to gain market share.

Instant messaging platforms were beginning to add video calling support, such as Yahoo Messenger opening its doors to the new technology in 2002 and MSN Messenger a year later in 2003. The year 2003 also saw Skype add this which he called ‘peer-to-peer communication’ to his platform. Although it was end-to-end encrypted, questions have been raised about its security, with many cases of people gaining unauthorized access to private conversations.

Boosted resolution: 4K

After 15 years of widespread webcam use, the world was beginning to rely on webcams for making video calls. Consumers began to demand a better experience, wanting to see the faces of friends, family and co-workers more clearly.

An early gamer, Logitech was the first company to release a commercially available 4K webcam several years after its first webcam in 2017. Its Brio webcam cost around $200, demonstrating exactly how webcams could be made in lower cost compared to the first designs.

The 4K webcam shoots at 30 fps, with support for 1080p “Full HD” at 30 fps or 60 fps, and 720p “HD Ready” at 30 fps, 60 fps or 90 fps. 5x digital zoom and HDR support were added to the webcam’s long list of features, while users could choose between 65, 78 and 90 degree video fields to tailor their experience to their surroundings. unique.

What the future holds is still unknown, but a number of external cameras supporting up to 8K resolution can be connected to some computers, hinting at the possibility of consumer webcams pushing the limits of 4K. .

From VGA to USB-C

Early webcams connected using a VGA port, which provided stable transmission of video from an external device to the customer’s computer. In order to add audio support, manufacturers had to change the connector they were using. The most widely adopted of these being USB-A, which is still widely used today.

With the emergence of 4K webcams, USB-A proved incapable of handling such large files. Professional webcams such as these use the much faster USB-C instead. Computers without USB-C ports can connect to the latest webcams with an adapter, but keep in mind this limits speeds, rendering 4K capabilities unusable.

A focus on confidentiality

As constant improvements have been made to hardware, consumers have taken an increasingly cautious approach to privacy. Manufacturers acted early, with many companies adding a physical barrier to their webcams. This shutter-like cover ensured that no unwanted access would be gained without the need to physically disconnect the external webcam.

A more streamlined approach to this is found in the latest webcams, both built-in and external. A simple LED indicator lets the computer user know when the camera is in use, although some users don’t get as much peace of mind from it as a physical shutter.

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