The webcam is now such a normal part of regular everyday life that it’s hard to fathom the one-time wonder of watching through digital channels as life happened miles, countries, continents away from one’s own home computer. Video conferencing had been appearing as a science-fiction premonition in films and TV shows for decades, and the emergence of the webcam made it seem possible in the foreseeable future. This was decades before Skype, which was released in 2003 and was in mainstream use within a couple of years. The first working webcam was installed in the Computer Laboratory at Cambridge University. It was a simple camera hooked up to the Web so you could see (not so) remotely whether the coffeepot in the lab hallway was full. Basically, it saved a lazy student or researcher a walk.

Some of the early peaks of webcam glory came during the ’90s dot-com bubble. A woman named Jenni gained world fame as the first webcam celebrity with JenniCam, a photo feed from her dorm room that refreshed every three minutes. When Jenni changed clothes or kissed a boy, she broke the Internet before that was an expression. Jenni’s fame was the obvious precursor to what would become the webcam’s main use on the then already porn-dominated Internet: voyeurism, live!

That indulging voyeurism would be an obvious function for the webcam seems only natural now. It can be said that, certainly in today’s VR age, technology has a big driving force in pornography; it is a huge online industry and takes up much of the Web. The webcam in the porn age is the love child of phone sex lines and 20th-century X-rated cinemas. Its added value is the privacy of the home theatre: it’s right there on your lap(top).

Direct descendants of the webcams on the PCs and laptops we still use but will likely discard for something new are FaceTime on our phones and lifecasting platforms like Facebook and YouNow. The webcam was used for one-on-one conversation in its early days (and one-way broadcasting in its porn peak days), but nowadays it seems that broadcasting to anyone will do.

Above: Conference calling in science fiction.
The integration of the webcam into everyday communication is one of those classic examples of design fiction derived from the entertainment industry. The use of implausible technologies is, of course, regularly seen in science-fiction films. Many have spotted the early iPad precursors in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in the case of the webcam, the movie industry has been dreaming up forms of video calling for decades. Early on, the family cartoon The Jetsons featured a simple version that we know now as Skype, but there were also strange, ominous setups featuring giant screens on which scary conference calls took place with threatening-looking business executives and dictators depicted as webcam demigods. Perhaps it’s another hint of what else we can expect from the now so nonthreatening webcam.

Above: Petra Cortright.
An early adopter of using the webcam for artistic purposes was the US artist Petra Cortright, who claimed it as her tool of choice and started doing online performance pieces as early as 2007. Playing with simple technologies such as free graphics for fun at first, she has since honed her craft, and though her approach has remained simple, she now employs smart glitches and works for big clients, including fashion brands. To really understand the importance of Cortright’s work, one has to remember that it takes an early adopter with significant will to stake out a new field, certainly in art. However simplistic Cortright’s approach may seem, her DIY toying and tinkering with consumer technology was a first in the digital arts, and her 2007 video VVEBCAM remains a classic of digital art history.