The world’s first webcam was built to test the theory that a watched pot never boils. Or something close to that, anyway.
In 1991, computer scientists at the University of Cambridge had at their disposal a world-class research lab, with one major drawback. There was only one coffee maker for the entire department, and it was on another floor. Tired of trekking to the coffee pot and finding the coffee had been drunk, Dr. Quentin Stafford-Fraser and Dr. Paul Jadetzky put a video camera by the pot and wrote software that allowed scientists all over the building to watch the live images on their computer screens.
The result was a perkier team of researchers, and the birth of the webcam. The advances in webcam technology over the intervening decades have made instant, live, HD video conferencing a major new form of communication. However, true to the ethos that led to the webcam’s creation–that necessity is the mother of invention–there are plenty of other tricks your webcam can perform.
Here are six other uses for a webcam that will unleash its full potential.
1. Take a Passport Photo
Take the “web” part of your webcam and you’re left with a pretty high-tech camera. The increase in average broadband speeds across America has made HD video calling standard, and as a result, any webcam worth purchasing is now able to capture images in 1080p and beyond.
Logitech’s C920 webcam, for example, costs less than $100, captures images in full HD through a glass lens, and has automatic low light compensation and more megapixels than the iPhone 8 (at a fraction of the price).
So, when you’re done planning your overseas trip via a video call, snap a passport-quality image to finish off your preparations. To meet U.S. standards, the image must be in color, your head must take up half the shot, and you can’t wear glasses, hats, or head coverings. Easy.
2. Set up Security Surveillance Around the House
Just as those pot-watching scientists originally planned, your webcam can act as your eyes (and ears) while you’re busy working. With just a home desktop or laptop as the central hub, you can place webcams around your home and use an app like SightHound, iCam, or iSpy to record–complete with motion detection–and live stream video to a remote device. The webcams themselves don’t need any special built-in features, but image quality is obviously going matter.
Use the systems to watch for baddies, keep an eye on your pets, or to check who comes knocking when you’re not home.
3. Create a DIY Baby Monitor
Using the same apps and setup described above, you can create your own HD baby monitor to see exactly what the kiddo gets up to at night and when he or she is supposed to be napping. With a live feed to a laptop at your bedside, you can see and hear (most webcams have built-in microphones) what triggers the little one to stir, or just spend your first nights at home together watching your baby snooze–they’re so much cuter when they’re not crying!
4. Become a Celebrity Live Streamer
YouTube Live, YouNow, and Facebook Live have made web celebrities out of everyday folks by giving them the power to share their personalities with the world. While some of the high-earning web celebs use mini movie cameras that can cost thousands, you can project yourself to the masses in full HD using a cheap webcam. Use VC Daily’s What Kind of Live Streamer Are You? quiz to find out exactly what hardware will best suit your live streaming goals. Personally, I’d advise you to grab a webcam with built-in background replacement tech, so no one knows you’re broadcasting live from your parents’ spare room.
5. Make Your Face Your Online Security System
Your face is the most personal form of identification you own, and it’s certainly the most convenient. Now you can use it as a password to protect your computer and your online transactions. With an Intel RealSense scanner, an app like Personify, or a webcam with built-in infrared cameras, such as the Brio, you can create a moving, 3D scan of your face to give yourself 21st-century protection. Microsoft has already incorporated the tech into its Windows 10 OS, and experts believe biometric security is going to become common in the coming years.
6. Live the Minority Report Dream
There’s still some debate about whether gesture-driven, Minority Report-style computer navigation is actually any better than a regular mouse click, but you can’t deny it looks cool. Using the same motion-capture, 3D-scanning webcam technology outlined above, you can go a step beyond touchscreen and control your desktop or laptop with a wave of your hand. If you’re in business you can embrace wall-sized motion control using Oblong Industries’ latest gadgets, and if you’re a private user you can link an app like CamSpace to your webcam and start navigating the internet like a wizard…or Tom Cruise.