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#10. Starting the Site

July 10, 2012 16:39

For the first series of articles, I'm going to write about the top 10 noteworthy events and/or features that have transpired with this site. A lot of this will rehash or supplement other documents on this site, especially those of a historical nature, or the news entries of the time. So, without further ado.... #10.

Back in 1996, I was reading a magazine, Popular Science I think, but I can't remember, and it had a 4 page article about webcams, which at that time were nifty web novelties. One of the featured cams was watching a basement for ghosts, another kept an eye on a coffee maker. The cams were simplistic, yet complicated. Most of them operated using a camcorder and a video capture card. A scripted sequence of events would capture an image, convert it to a jpeg, and transfer the file to a webserver using ftp. Since most people had dialup, the rate of update was one image every 30 to 60 seconds on those cams.

It would be about a year later before I finally got around to doing it myself. I spent I think $329 on a US Robotics Bigpicture webcam kit, which included a small camera with a composite cable and a pci capture card. I ended up purchasing a new computer at the same time... well, relatively new anyway, to support it, as the computer I had before had issues when I tried to install it, and it was hopelessly short on available pci slots anyway. This was August 1997. Thankfully, by this time, several different software developers had created webcam applications specifically designed to capture a jpeg image from the camera and automate the serving of the image on the internet. My first incarnation of the site was a simple page called "Spy on Paul Mathis". It was hosted on the small amount of webspace offered by my ISP, and updated once every 60 seconds.

This next bit might seem to be somewhat of a tangent, but it's important never the less. Around this time, I started playing with raytracing. I had played with it a bit years ago, but it suddenly became a more feasible hobby with faster computers and better graphics. I discovered Pov-Ray, along with an IRC community devoted to it. Among various projects related to this program was the ability to set up a renderfarm, where timeconsuming, resource intensive raytrace operations could be split up and automatically distributed among multiple computers. I started scouring the local computer repair shops looking for old computers that I could use for this task. I bought a couple 486's for like $30 each, installed Linux on them, and messed around with getting the renderfarm working. I also had at least one other linux box up and running since I was using it to port the accounting applications one of the companies I worked for produced on AIX. Of course, porting a program from AIX to linux required the timeconsuming step of recompiling it and fixing the few syntax and runtime bugs that AIX for some reason allowed.

My interest in developing a huge renderfarm of outdated computer equipment eventually faded, but one of my povray buddies inquired if he could use one of those 486's as a webserver for his povray website. I was now on a dedicated isdn connection with 16 static ip addresses, so this was something I could offer. I briefly entertained the possibility of setting up a webhosting company, but eventually balked at the idea since it was going to require a huge investment with money I didn't really have, and I would have had a very short timeframe to drum up enough business to support it. Nevertheless, in planning for all of this, I had put together a nice webserver for myself, and decided to move the hosting of the cam site to my local server, and I set up the cam software (running on windows 95), to serve the image directly from the program instead of doing a file transfer first. With some tweaking to the image quality, I was able to stream the cam at about 1 fps. Not too exciting, but it was able to outpace the dialup users, so I was happy.

This all happened the first year. Before the doorbell, or the lamps, or the rccar, or especially the DMI name. I was part of a diverse but very limited population, where the very act of setting up the cam was a novelty in and of itself, and no further explainations were requested or required. The fact that I managed to do it at all was all that needed to be said.