WRAL-TV Webcam Featured in Chapel Hill News

WRAL-TV Webcam Featured in Chapel Hill News

WRAL Online’s placement of a Robocam or Webcam received some recognition in this write-up by The Chapel Hill News. John Conway, director of new media for WRAL-TV discusses the ways in which the camera is being used by WRAL Online viewers.

Story from the The Chapel Hill News: February 16, 2000

Smile, you’re on Robocam

If you’re hanging out on Franklin Street, better mind your Ps and Qs. WRAL-TV has sent your image to cyberspace.

By Dave Hart,
The Chapel Hill News:
Staff Writer

The Web’s-eye-view of the corner of Franklin and Columbia streets. WRAL estimates that 160,000 images were downloaded from the TV station’s Web site during a week in late January.

CHAPEL HILL — Next time you’re downtown, near the corner of Franklin and Columbia streets, look up toward the roof of the Top of the Hill restaurant. Then say, “Cheese.” The WRAL Robocam is taking your picture.

One of several “Webcams” the Raleigh-based television station has stationed at sites throughout the Triangle, the Franklin Street Robocam provides live, still shots of the downtown scene 24 hours a day. Visitors to WRAL’s Web site can click on the Robocam page and see what’s happening and who’s out and about. Not only does the camera provide a panoramic view of the north side of Franklin Street around the intersection, but by clicking anywhere on the image, the viewer can direct the camera to focus on any part of the scene and zoom in on any portion of it. If someone is sitting on the bench in front of Starbuck’s Coffee reading a newspaper, for example, the viewer can zoom in close enough to read the headlines over his shoulder. And although the shots are still images, not video, they are updated the moment someone clicks on the site.

“It’s a way of showcasing some of the new technology,” said John Conway, head of new media for WRAL. “I think it’s the only camera of this type in the state, a camera that can be controlled like this by the end user. We purchased the camera a year ago, and we were looking for an interesting place to put it. We wanted to put it in a place where there would be a lot of activity, where it wouldn’t become deserted after five o’clock. Franklin Street has one of the most active pedestrian scenes in the Triangle, and it seemed like a perfect place to put it.”

WRAL has other cameras that provide 24-hour live shots of the WRAL newsroom, the Raleigh skyline and a cat cage at the Orange County Animal Shelter — the latter placed there in hopes of attracting viewers who might want to adopt the kittens they see.

But the Chapel Hill Robocam is the only one whose movements and magnification can be dictated by the viewers who log on the Web site. If no one is using the site, the Robocam just sits there. But as soon as someone logs on and clicks on the scene, it starts to record images, one for each click.

The Robocam was installed in December. Conway said it served 60,000 images — viewers called up that many individual shots — in its first week of operation. During the week after the blizzard in late January, it served some 160,000 images. And already the Robocam has sparked some creative uses. “People are using it to communicate,” Conway said. “We heard from one guy who had a friend in Croatia. They’d been e-mailing back and forth, but they hadn’t seen each other for a long time. The guy here told his friend over there to look up the Web site at a certain specified time, and then he went downtown at that time and stood on the corner and waved up at the camera so his friend in Croatia could see him. I sometimes use it as a sort of weather-cam. We’re in Raleigh, so if I look on the Web site and see that it’s raining in Chapel Hill, I know it’s heading this way and will be raining here soon. And we think it’ll be great for Halloween or whenever they close Franklin Street after a big ball game.”

For the viewer, the camera offers an opportunity for a bit of high-tech voyeurism. But some of the people down on the street said they were a bit unsettled knowing that someone miles away might be watching them. “I’m not crazy about knowing that, while I’m just standing here on the sidewalk minding my own business, somebody could be zooming in and watching me,” said Mary Dewar, standing outside Starbuck’s. “It’s not a huge thing, but I think it’s a little bothersome. What if somebody took my picture with that thing and took my head off and put it on somebody else’s body and sent it all over the Internet?” Another bystander, Adam Hull, said it could be worse. “It’s a little unnerving, but at least this is a public place,” he said. “It would be different if this was in your house: You’d get out of the shower and wave: ‘Hi, everybody.’ But here in public, people can watch you or take your picture anyway, so the camera isn’t really an invasion of privacy. And looking at the site is kind of neat. It’s a novelty.”

Conway said WRAL had consulted its attorneys about possible privacy concerns, and they’d assured the station that there was no legal prohibition against positioning an automated camera downtown. Moreover, he said, the station hasn’t received any complaint about the camera’s presence. “We thought about that, and our attorneys told us that legally it’s no different than a photographer taking pictures in a public place,” Conway said. “It’s legal to take pictures of public places and the people in them, and that’s all this does. A lot of people have looked at the site, and a lot of people are aware of it. We haven’t had a single complaint. Most people we’ve talked to find it a lot of fun.”

The Robocam doesn’t store images — once a new image comes up, the previous one is gone — so it would be of little use to law enforcement officers hoping to use it to secure evidence of possible criminal activity downtown, Conway said. “We did have one gentleman call us from England and said, ‘I’m not sure, but I think I just saw a drug transaction over the Robocam.’ But of course by that time it was over, so there wasn’t anything to do. If the police want to watch it like the public does, they’re welcome to. But it wouldn’t be very efficient. It’s really just intended to be a fun addition to our Web site. From what I’ve heard, that’s how people are using it.”

To check out the Franklin Street scene, log onto http://www.wral-tv.com and then go to Robocam.

The Chapel Hill News staff writer Dave Hart
can be reached at
932-8744 or dhart@nando.com

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