the electric eye
Television systems before 1920 were mechanical, and early authors on television speculated that "the electric eye" would "be man's friend" for industry, exploration and surveillance. When the cathode ray tube was invented in the mid-20's, the commercial radio networks had just wrested control of the airwaves from radio hams, academics, and social and labor activists and were ready to plan the future of the coming medium. Commercial television became widespread in 1948, and since then the cultural and artistic possibilities of the medium have been trampled by the influence of advertisers and the need to appeal to the largest mass audiences.

The adoption of the charge coupled device in the 1970s dropped the price of television cameras, one component of the camcorder, causing a proliferation of surveillance cameras. In the last few years, commodity computer power and storage capacity have expanded to make storing, processing and transmitting possible on millions of general purpose computers. Advances in technology make capturing and recording your every minute cheaper and easier every day.

mobile unit

You don't have to wait for Microsoft to innovate. I got a refurbished B&W Quickcam for $50 and thought it would be fun to shoot videos with my laptop, Ryu-Oh, an IBM Thinkpad 365XD with a Pentium/133 that runs Linux. It was.

Programmers don't work alone -- this project was possible because of Linux and the culture of free software around it. By internet search I found software to use the Quickcam as a still camera, but nothing for video. I thought about it and drafted a design -- Linux is a free rendition of the classic Unix operating system. Like Unix, Linux is simple in design and well-documented, designed on the assumption that any programmer could grow to understand how any sub-system works.

I programmed Ryu-Oh to record video in two Saturdays. I'd just discovered the language Python, and decided this project would be a good way to learn. The plan was simple: shoot images in sequence, store them as files in a directory, and record a timestamp for each. Since I wanted to send them over the web, however, I needed to compress the movies. I found the Berkley MPEG encoder, and wrote another Python program to control the encoder and synchronize the frames. I fine tuned the program's interface, part command line and part GUI, based on experiences at each shoot.

Having camera, I looked for a subject. My choices were limited because the Quickcam cannot be focused or zoomed. To take advantage of the medium, we'd need a lot of motion -- like a Jackie Chan movie, people eat that up. Walking under surveillance cameras, we thought about shooting back from a shopping cart. Our first videos were shot in the summer of `97 rolling down the aisles of a nearby supermarket. Through this we perfected cart steering and Quickcam aiming for future, larger targets.

One weekend we rented a car to visit Conneticut and brought our computer into a Wal-Mart on the way home. We set up Ryu-Oh in a cart, booted, rolled into the store and shot a few movies, driving in circles through different departments. In the toy section we stopped to take a portrait of Ryu-Oh and its operators. Customers and employees were oblivious to us until a few snapshots taken with a flash attracted attention. A Wal-Mart security woman found us and asked if she could help. We said no, so she asked what we were doing. We replied vaguely that we were taking a few pictures. She told us that wasn't allowed, so we'd have to leave or she'd have to take them. Afterward we wondered what would have happened if they'd tried to search the computer. Would they have had anyone who could have figured out how to log in? We left without finding out, with hundreds of images awaiting compression.

The following movies were captured by our space probe. To see them, you'll need an MPEG movie player. If you're running any kind of Unix, including Linux, try SMPEG.

Movies vary in length and degree of compression. View the smaller movies first, then larger movies. Network performance varies -- use the mirror which works best for you.

If you'd like to shoot your own video, we're giving away our software, mpegCam-0.01 absolutely free. For other videos, take a look at Green TV. You might like Airstrike, which we shot with the Game Boy Camera.
Self Portrait (505 kb)
US Europe
We fly the Quickcam ball around the computer, getting a look at the operators.
Recycle (1163 kb)
US Europe
Greenwashing, low prices, zombie like shoppers, and rows of potato chips.
Beer (298 kb)
US Europe
Circle around a world of booze: beer, wine coolers, and hooch.
Kids (562 kb)
US Europe
Between toys and automotive, half-alive humans shop with their children.
Aisle 11 (370 kb)
US Europe
A weaker predecessor of Aisle 12, weaving through a now-demolished supermarket.
Aisle 12 (810 kb)
US Europe
We nearly collide with several shoppers oblivious to our data collection system.

© 1999 Honeylocust Media Systems, contact