This is the most frequently asked question, usually with no preamble and no further detail as to the nature of the question. This page will attempt, in the most expeditious way possible, to answer that question to the satisfaction of you, my dear audience. I am assuming, of course, that you're directing this question to I, Restil aka Paul Mathis, the owner and creator of the site, and the goofy guy that takes up space on the Office cam. Other people on the site may have different ambitions and certainly have a different history. I've highlighted areas you might be interested in, so feel free to skip ahead as you see fit, or read the whole thing. I'll attempt to be entertaining.

The Very Beginning

I've been working with computers since I was 6, and first tasted the internet back in 1992, but really started programming webpages in 1995. Sometime in 1996 I read a magazine article about webcams. At the time, webcams were rare, well-hacked, and usually had a unique perspective on things. Coffee pots, birds' nests, or ghosthunting were the common theme for webcams. Of course, lots of people set them up just so they could be watched. It was a cool geek thing to do, and those that discovered them were usually amazed by the technological feat they required just to get them functional online that there was not much effort put into wondering why one would bother setting one up in the first place. Of course, at that point, the internet was still predmoniantly a playground for geeks, so nobody really asked why, they just wanted to know how to set up one of their own.

My first webcam went online in early August, 1997. It was a USR Bigpicture camera which used a composite connection to a capture card. The whole kit cost $329. I tried several webcam programs, eventually settling on Webcam 32 and I had the image uploading to my ISP's provided webspace at a rate of about 1 image per minute (I was still on dialup, afterall), and the site was called Spy on Paul Mathis. Later that year I signed up for ISDN which while only 64kbps, was still quite a bit faster and far more reliable than the dialup connection was, and I ended up hosting the site (such that it was) from home from that point on. This allowed me to stream the cam directly from the webcam program instead of uploading the image to the server. Now I was uploading images only when someone was watching. We're talking about maybe 10-15 people a day. That bandwidth mattered.

The Doorbell Event

As cool as webcams were, I also found a certain pleasure in discovering other strange things that were connected to the internet. Vending machines were a big deal at one point, allowing the consumer, or the supplier to monitor the inventory of the machine. I also remember a dorm that had the status of the various washing machine/dryers. These weren't just cool features, they were actually useful, although it's debatable just how much use anyone really got out of them.

I eventually found the site Icepick.com. This guy had several webcams, but also a few other features, including a doorbell and a barcode scanner for his groceries, both of which were features I chose to later emulate. The doorbell got my attention though. I saw a number of useful utilities for having an internet connected doorbell. No, I wasn't going to let people ring it over the internet, that wasn't the point. I wanted to monitor it so when someone rang the doorbell, I had a time/date stamp in a logfile showing that it happened. I later, combined with a webcam in my front door, had it set up to take a series of pictures when the doorbell was rung, so I would have a visual log of visitors as well.

So in July 1998, I stayed up all night one night, drank about 12 Dr. Peppers, and wired up my doorbell, via a relay, to the button contact pins of the game port, and wrote the software to add a single entry to the logs.

I no longer have the doorbell connected as I'm no longer in the same house, and I don't have a convienent place to mount a cam in this one for that purpose, although I do eventually intend to set one up again.

And Then There Was Light!

Another site on which I wasted more time than was healthy, was a site called the VET Live cam. This was a cam mounted in a computer lab in I belive the Netherlands. In any event, the cam is no longer functional, and hasn't been for many years now. However, that site had the nifty feature of a single lamp that you could turn on and off, day or night and watch it happen via the live webcam. I decided I needed to make this happen for myself. I mean, I already had the webcam, so this was the next logical step.

So, in December of 1998 I built a simple parallel port circuit using a relay, and got a simple lamp to turn on and off. I sat it on the table behind me so it would be visible from the cam, and let people control it. It was a cool nifty feature, but apparently my sanity was not in question at this point.

Motorized Cam

A few days after getting the lamp working, I realized, now that I knew how easy it was to build a simple interface circuit, I might be able to control other things. So I thought about letting people pan the camera around the room. I found a stepper motor from an old floppy drive and managed to get it controllable using the same parallel port as the lamp. This required a combination of parts from my old erector set and superglue, but it worked. Now people could look around the room if they so desired.

The first RC Car

Upon the success of the panning camera, I set to work on my next big project. I was inspired by an online Khepera robot that had its own onboard cam, and was also viewed by an external cam. You could navigate it around a small maze. This was a fun toy, but it was tethered, which made its coverage area rather small. I figured I would love to have such a device that could cover a much larger area, like my whole house.

It just so happens, wireless toys exist with that range. Your everyday average RC Car can do it, and it only costs about $20. So I went and bought one, drove it around a bit, scared the cat, etc. Once I got that out of my system, I tore into it to see what I could do. I incorrectly assumed that the levers on the remote were resistance based (which they probably are on more expensive models). However, on the cheap toys, they're just rocker switches. And... it just so happens, I already have a circuit that works perfectly well replacing a switch....

So I took 4 relays and used them to replace the 4 possible positions that the levers on the remote could be in, and now I had a method of driving around the car using the computer. Now all I needed was a camera.

I found a small, black and white camera and a 2.4ghz video transmitter and receiver from Matco. The total cost was about $200. I taped the camera to the car, connected it to the transmitter, wired it up to its own battery pack, and let it run. Well, it kinda dragged, since I exceeded the weight rating of the car, but it worked great. I set up a second capture card and connected it to the wireless video receiver, and started broadcasting my second webcam.

Since the car could barely move with all the extra weight, I solved that issue and removed the extra battery pack and instead wired the cam and transmitter directly to the same batteries the car used to power itself. All three devices required a 12V power source, so that wasn't a problem. I set it loose again and now it worked great.

However, the car still had issues. First off, sharing the batteries saved weight, but it also put too much load on the batteries and when the car moved, it resulted in a voltage drop that caused the transmitter to fuzz out until the car stopped. I was ok when I used regular AA batteries, but using the rechargables as I did, they have slightly less voltage, and it wasn't enough to have all three components working at once. Of course, the fuzzing out only lasted a second at a time, and people could still see what they were doing, but it was still annoying. The batteries only would last 3 hours. I had 2 sets that I would swap out, recharging one set while the other was in use, and I could keep the car running about 9 hours a day this way. However, if I had to leave for a while... like when I went to work, the car simply wasn't going to be available until I got home. I really wanted a car that could run all day, requiring me to change batteries no more than once every 12 hours or so.

So I found a much larger RC Car. Actually, this one was a monster truck. And after I got it set up and working, I managed to fry the video transmitter, and I didn't have the $75 sitting around to buy another one (I was perpetually broke back then), and so the car got mothballed for a couple years.

Time Passes

I didn't really make any new breakthroughs in the next few years, but I made a lot of additions and changes. I set up several more cams in the house. One in the front door looking out, which I eventually wired to my doorbell as I mentioned before. I set a cam up in my living room, den, and Lab. DSL became available and I upgraded my home connection so it could actually handle a few people at a time. I got into using X10 and during a moment when Smarthome was having a fire sale on Honeywell X10 modules, I worked $200 into a huge collection of modules, motion sensors, and controllers. I set up a motion sensor on the front porch, so the front door cam would now record movement as well as doorbell activity, and I also set up a total of 8 lamps throughout the house. I set up a voice synth to read out my webpage messages, and I eventually settled on the messages being announced by a scream, which I had initially made my doorbell sound effect for Halloween one year. The site slowly got more popular and I eventually even got plugs on a few big websites, like slashdot, ehowa, and fark.

The Whole Insanity Thing

Keep in mind, up to this point, there was no issue with insanity. However one day in July 2002, I woke up one morning hearing some very strange messages being read over the voice synth, something that sounded like I was being talked about on a radio show or something. So I got up and checked out where people were coming from and it turned out that it was a radio station's website, CFOX.COM and they had a list of geek sites on a page called "Geek of the Week" and my site was on the top of it. Ok. That's kinda cool I guess. What I didn't realize was that they had just announced the site on the radio. I had no domain at the time, so instead of reading the ip address out over the radio, they just had people go to the website and click on the link from there. However, upon seeing me, after a commercial break, the radio host ended up talking about it for a few more minutes. People were talling me that they were talking about me, and I was desparately trying to get their listen-live client to work so I could hear it myself, but by the time I got there, they were already done.

One of the employees there was nice enough to send me mp3s of the two segments where they were talking about my site. You can hear them here, and here. Listening to the first segment, after hearing the one guy talk about all the stuff you can control (only some of which was accurate btw), one of the other dj's asks the sarcastic question "what is this? Drive me insane dot com?" I laughed at that comment. And then I started to think about it, because I had no domain at the time, and that sounded as good as any. It was cool, it was catchy, and most importantly, it was available! So I got it. I made a couple minor changes to theme the site around the name, mostly had a logo created and added things like the insanity level.

Media Attention

Someone eventually gave the site to Tech TV's The Screensavers, and all hell broke loose. Once THAT traffic died down, I got dozens of radio interviews, magazine articles, newspaper articles, etc. It was a rollercoaster rush for about 3 months until things died down. It was fun while it lasted, but it was also a bit annoying at times. Shock jocks aren't as much fun when you're the one on the radio. However, it also introduced me to a bunch of new people, many of whom I still consider friends, and I also met my wife that way.

Other People's Cams

I eventually had to move out of the house I had lived in for 8 years and bounced around a bit. I temporarily ended up without broadband and found myself trying to host the site off an isdn line again, only now it had much more traffic. To draw some traffic away from what little bandwidth I had available, I let other people set up cams on the site. I figured this would hopefully end up with people watching the cams of other people, and using their upstream, instead of mine. I eventually moved somewhere that had a decent connection again, but before the next move, I purchased a hosted server and moved the site there, so I no longer needed to concern myself with the bandwidth limitations of wherever I happened to live.

Of course, not every cam has something controllable. Some of them are just cams, as mine was in the beginning.


So, you've read all that and you still haven't figured out why? Because it's fun. It allows me to spend time interacting with people, working on computers, working with fun electronics toys, programming, and coming up with neat new ideas and occasionally even impressing someone. As a result of this hobby, I've made lots of friends, had lots of fun, and met the girl of my dreams. Because the site was entertaining, she actually stuck around long enough to figure that out, which worked out pretty well for me. Over the years, I've had several job opportunities as a result of this site, a few of which I took advantage of. Do I need any more reasons?

The first lamp

The view from the front door

The living room cam

The view from the second RC Car

The second RC Car