The Visual Ubiquity

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, January 2012

Twenty years ago, when webcams first hit the market, I made up some special slides (yes, 35mm slides!) to illustrate a story I used in several speeches.

I began the story by asking a question that has always mystified me: What did my dog do when I wasn’t home? Well, I said, I could install a webcam in the hall and watch. But then, maybe I should tie the webcam to the dog’s head so I could follow his field of view. In my speech, I would then show a charming picture of my dog with the webcam attached to his head. Everyone would laugh. Even better, let’s pass a law that all dogs had to have GPS-enabled webcams. Then when anything interesting was happening in the world you only needed to tune in to the nearest dog to watch. I then showed another picture of heads of state at a summit meeting with my dog off to the side wearing his webcam.

Well, twenty years have passed and we don’t need dogs now—we have people with smartphones. And people are everywhere. We’ve come a long way since some students at Cambridge University installed a webcam in their coffee room. For a while, back then, such public webcams were a fascination. I don’t think they are especially popular now—there is too much else to do than watch nothing happening somewhere else.

But when something does happen, all those cameras constitute an evolving capability that we have yet to fully exploit or even understand. Unlike my proposed cam-enabled dogs, people choose their pictures and videos. For better and for worse, we can far outdo my imaginary dogcams.

Several billion people with cell phones will be moving around in a world characterized by an evolving visual ubiquity that also includes increasingly dense real-time CCTV surveillance, satellite imagery, and street-view photography. It’s amazing how quickly all this has happened. It seems only a few years ago that our main visual connection to far-away places was National Geographic magazine.

A hint of what we can do with all this imagery was seen in the recent Darpa balloon challenge. Ten red balloons were put in the air at various random places within the continental United States. A US $40 000 prize would go to the first competitor to locate all the balloons. Amazingly, it took a team from MIT only nine hours. This feat seems extraordinary when you consider that there are about ten million square kilometers in the country. MIT solved two problems: how to incent a lot of people to help, and how to filter all of the input.

Another example is in the work of the organization Ushahidi, which uses crowdsourcing to aid humanitarian efforts. Following the devastating 2010 earthquake, Ushahidi began an open source project to develop an accurate crisis map of Haiti by compiling and integrating realtime reports from volunteers in the local neighborhoods. Their contributions to the humanitarian efforts were remarkable, and could not have been obtained otherwise.

There are ongoing technological developments that can augment this visual ubiquity. Face recognition, and the ability to track individuals through crowds and across multiple cameras, as in airport security, need algorithmic development to be more real-time and less labor-intensive. There are also efforts to stitch together the billions of amateur-provided photos on the web to create a worldwide panorama.

But after these twenty years I still don’t have a home webcam. I’d like to, but I don’t know what to do with it. I could point it at my driveway, which stretches westward for some distance through trees, but frankly nothing ever happens there—like most of the planet, I imagine. Maybe once a year my camera might see the glint of a deer’s eyes. I know that there are companies that offer cloud-based services to filter out all the nothingness using change-detection algorithms, but I fear that I would be left with only an annual summary that says—to borrow a literary phrase—“All Quiet on the Western Front.” But then, you never know. And maybe my dog does something interesting while I’m gone, too.