Over the past several years, Web cameras have been providing a digital window to the world, allowing Internet users to view images of remote locations anytime and from any Web browser.
At first, the technology was used for mostly promotional purposes, providing views, for instance, of Disney's Magic Kingdom or the Eiffel Tower. Today, as the technology progresses, numerous industries, including construction, are adopting Web cams for use in their business.
Many A/E/C firms, especially general contractors, are utilizing Web cams on job sites. Some firms use them simply for promotion and public relations reasons, others for providing remote clients with an inexpensive "window" to the project. For construction managers, constant visual surveillance of a project can make the difference between a good night's sleep and tossing and turning, as they wonder whether the steel was "actually" delivered to the job site, among other concerns.
Web cams consist of three basic components: mounted cameras, a phone connection and interfacing software. Depending on the level of sophistication and requirements, the systems could range from a fixed-position, one-camera view to advanced configurations with multiple cameras and pan, tilt and zoom capabilities.
Earthcam Inc., Hackensack, N.J., has been providing Web cams to the construction industry since 1996. The company offers complete infrastructure services to manage, host and maintain live images for its clients, which include Turner Corp., NASA and Toys 'R' Us.
ConstructionCam, EarthCam's standard service for construction, enables users to pan 360 degrees, tilt and zoom the camera remotely over the Web. It automatically stores multiple images to create a photo archive of the project from start to finish, and offers streaming video capability. The system comes with a fan, a heater, a zoom lens and even a windshield wiper to ensure it remains operational in any weather condition.
EarthCam's monitoring and maintenance software automatically monitors each camera feed, providing emergency pager and e-mail notification to EarthCam support staff in case of a malfunction. The software's user interface provides the local weather and time where the camera resides, a chat room where users can communicate about the project, and archival and time-lapse video functionality. For instance, project managers can utilize the software to e-mail a video snapshot along with notes and chat with other members of the building team while viewing the video. In addition, the software has built-in alarm notifications that alert the camera owner via pager or e-mail of motion detection or if the camera goes offline.
One of EarthCam's more notable clients is the Chicago Bears professional football team (www.chicagobears.com  ), who are using ConstructionCam to showcase the $637 million renovation of Soldier Field. Since the bulk of the work is inside the stadium, the public can see the progress. It also allows Bears management, who are based 30 miles north at the team's headquarters, to view progress shots and review mockups without making the trip to the stadium every day.
"We want to give our fans the ability to watch the construction of their new home for Bears football," says Ted Phillips, Chicago Bears president.
NuSpectra Multimedia Inc., Alameda, Calif., StarDot Technologies, Buena Park, Calif., and Inet Architects Inc., Arlington, Mass., all offer similar equipment, software and service solutions for the construction industry. For instance, Inet Architect's OnSite Web cam system utilizes high-resolution (3 megapixel) cameras and supports the use of hand-held digital cameras, while StarDot offers a wireless system.
In addition to equipment vendors, several on-line project management firms, including Buzzsaw.com and Constructware, now also offer Web cam service.
There's no doubt that Web cams will continue to make inroads into this industry. As the technology continues to progress, the applications will expand into other areas. For instance, some systems now offer night viewing capabilities, which may allow building teams and owners to better address jobsite security.
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