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A webcam is a video camera that feeds or streams its image in real time to or through a computer to a computer network. When “captured” by the computer, the video stream may be saved, viewed or sent on to other networks via systems such as the internet, and emailed as an attachment. When sent to a remote location, the video stream may be saved, viewed or on sent there. Unlike an IP camera (which connects using Ethernet or Wi-Fi), a webcam is generally connected by a USB cable, or similar cable, or built into computer hardware, such as laptops.

The term “webcam” (a clipped compound) may also be used in its original sense of a video camera connected to the Web continuously for an indefinite time, rather than for a particular session, generally supplying a view for anyone who visits its web page over the Internet. Some of them, for example, those used as online traffic cameras, are expensive, rugged professional video cameras.

The most popular use of webcams is the establishment of video links, permitting computers to act as videophones or videoconference stations. Other popular uses include security surveillance, computer vision, video broadcasting, and for recording social videos.

The video streams provided by webcams can be used for a number of purposes, each using appropriate software:

Health care

Most modern webcams are capable of capturing arterial pulse rate by the use of a simple algorithmic trick. Researchers claim that this method is accurate to ±5 bpm.

Video monitoring

Webcams may be installed at places such as childcare centres, offices, shops and private areas to monitor security and general activity.

Commerce

Webcams have been used for augmented reality experiences online. One such function has the webcam act as a “magic mirror” to allow an online shopper to view a virtual item on themselves. The Webcam Social Shopper is one example of software that utilizes the webcam in this manner.

Videocalling and videoconferencing

Webcam can be added to instant messaging, text chat services such as AOL Instant Messenger, and VoIP services such as Skype, one-to-one live video communication over the Internet has now reached millions of mainstream PC users worldwide. Improved video quality has helped webcams encroach on traditional video conferencing systems. New features such as automatic lighting controls, real-time enhancements (retouching, wrinkle smoothing and vertical stretch), automatic face tracking and autofocus, assist users by providing substantial ease-of-use, further increasing the popularity of webcams.

Webcam features and performance can vary by program, computer operating system, and also by the computer’s processor capabilities. Video calling support has also been added to several popular instant messaging programs.

Video security

Webcams can be used as security cameras. Software is available to allow PC-connected cameras to watch for movement and sound, recording both when they are detected. These recordings can then be saved to the computer, e-mailed, or uploaded to the Internet. In one well-publicised case, a computer e-mailed images of the burglar during the theft of the computer, enabling the owner to give police a clear picture of the burglar’s face even after the computer had been stolen.

Unauthorized access of webcams can present significant privacy issues (see “Privacy” section below).

In December 2011, Russia announced that 290,000 Webcams would be installed in 90,000 polling stations to monitor the Russian presidential election, 2012.

Video clips and stills

Webcams can be used to take video clips and still pictures. Various software tools in wide use can be employed for this, such as PicMaster (for use with Windows operating systems), Photo Booth (Mac), or Cheese (with Unix systems). For a more complete list see Comparison of webcam software.

Input control devices

Special software can use the video stream from a webcam to assist or enhance a user’s control of applications and games. Video features, including faces, shapes, models and colors can be observed and tracked to produce a corresponding form of control. For example, the position of a single light source can be tracked and used to emulate a mouse pointer, a head-mounted light would enable hands-free computing and would greatly improve computer accessibility. This can be applied to games, providing additional control, improved interactivity and immersiveness.

FreeTrack is a free webcam motion-tracking application for Microsoft Windows that can track a special head-mounted model in up to six degrees of freedom and output data to mouse, keyboard, joystick and FreeTrack-supported games. By removing the IR filter of the webcam, IR LEDs can be used, which has the advantage of being invisible to the naked eye, removing a distraction from the user. TrackIR is a commercial version of this technology.

The EyeToy for the PlayStation 2, PlayStation Eye for the PlayStation 3, and the Xbox Live Vision camera and Kinect motion sensor for the Xbox 360 and are color digital cameras that have been used as control input devices by some games.

Small webcam-based PC games are available as either standalone executables or inside web browser windows using Adobe Flash.

Astro photography

With very-low-light capability, a few specific models of webcams are very popular to photograph the night sky by astronomers and astro photographers. Mostly, these are manual-focus cameras and contain an old CCD array instead of comparatively newer CMOS array. The lenses of the cameras are removed and then these are attached to telescopes to record images, video, still, or both. In newer techniques, videos of very faint objects are taken for a couple of seconds and then all the frames of the video are “stacked” together to obtain a still image of respectable contrast.

Laser beam profiling

A webcam’s CCD response is linear proportional to the incoming light. Therefore, webcams are suitable to record laser beam profiles, after the lens is removed. The resolution of a laser beam profiler depends on the pixel size. Commercial webcams are usually designed to record color images. The size of a webcam’s color pixel depends on the model and may lie in the range of 5 to 10µm. However, a color pixel consists of four black and white pixels each equipped with a color filter (for details see Bayer filter). Although these color filters work well in the visible, they may be rather transparent in the near infra-red. By switching a webcam into the Bayer-mode it is possible to access the information of the single pixels and a resolution below 3µm was possible.

Webcams allow for inexpensive, real-time video chat and webcasting, in both amateur and professional pursuits. They are frequently used in online dating and for online personal services offered mainly by women when camgirling. However, the ease of webcam use through the Internet for video chat has also caused issues. For example, moderation system of various video chat websites such as Omegle has been criticized as being ineffective, with sexual content still rampant. In a 2013 case, the transmission of nude photos and videos via Omegle from a teenage girl to a schoolteacher resulted in a child pornography charge.

YouTube is a popular website hosting many videos made using webcams. News websites such as the BBC also produce professional live news videos using webcams rather than traditional cameras.

Webcams can also encourage telecommuting, enabling people to work from home via the Internet, rather than traveling to their office.

The popularity of webcams among teenagers with Internet access has raised concern about the use of webcams for cyber-bullying. Webcam recordings of teenagers, including underage teenagers, are frequently posted on popular Web forums and imageboards such as 4chan.


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