It hasn't taken long for our voyeuristic society to see the potential in hooking up a video camera to the Internet, allowing anyone to watch just about anything as it happens: Couples saying their vows in a Las Vegas wedding chapel. Giraffes sauntering through their cages. Even corn growing in an Iowa field.
What brings silly entertainment to some can also be good for business. Web cameras, or webcams, attract people to Web sites. That means a bigger audience for viewing advertisements and ogling whatever the site may be selling.
There may be no greater motivation than giving online neighbors a peek at something far away, forbidden, foolish or simply too cool to pass up.
-- Gallery Furniture, www.galleryfurniture.com
This Web site features not one but 48 webcams aimed at merchandise in every nook and cranny of the Texas showroom. Shoppers can control the cameras: Spin them around to get a sense of what it feels like to stand in the middle of the living-room showcase or zoom in to inspect the sofa fabric.
The online catalogue of rugs, bedroom sets and recliners started with 16 webcams three years ago. Now, with close to 30,000 pieces of furniture spread throughout the 120,000-square-foot showroom, the store is ready to add a dozen more cameras.
Up to 100 online shoppers can view furniture simultaneously using the same webcam. According to Gallery Furniture, the largest number of cybershoppers to peer through the cameras at once was 1,000.
The Web site allows consumers to e-mail a photo from the webcam to friends or family who might want to have a say in which piece of furniture is purchased. And if purchasers are in the physical showroom, a store employee can record their images and their furniture selections to e-mail to others.
If you spot what looks like a comfy chair through one of the webcams, don't count on buying it for your living room, unless it's in Houston: site of the 20-year-old furniture store's one location. To maintain profitability, the store won't ship furniture beyond a 100-mile radius unless the order is substantial, money-wise.
Still, Gallery Furniture does want viewers outside its delivery reach to drool over its merchandise. The idea is to build national awareness and a customer base that's ready and waiting for the store to open branches.
-- Steve's Ant Farm, www.stevesantfarm.com
If you like watching ants dig tunnels in sand, then Steve Chambers figures you also might be interested in putting your business online. That's part of the idea behind Steve's Ant Farm, whose webcam turned a pet collection into an advertising enterprise.
Chambers gave his ant population an online audience five years ago just for kicks. Since then, more than 600,000 visitors have stopped by to peer at the industrious insects. And some of those onlookers also gazed above the live video at the banner ad for Chambers' Internet software development business, Atomicweb.
Each month about 200 ant-farm viewers click through to Website2Go, where Atomicweb sells predesigned Web sites for small businesses. That constitutes only a minor piece of the Washington firm's business, but every little bit helps now that e-commerce business is crawling along.
Atomicweb hasn't been able raise its second round of funding amid the dampened economic climate. So, with no more advertising money per se, the ant farm site offers an the company an alternative way to attract potential customers.
-- Ace Wasabi's Rock 'n' Roll Sushi, www.acewasabis.com
This Web site gives aspiring chefs a taste of what it's like to make sushi. The webcam, nicknamed "Sushi Cam," shows live pictures of a San Francisco sushi bar.
Observers can watch a chef create the restaurant's signature Flying Kamikaze Roll, spicy tuna and asparagus wrapped in albacore and topped with ponzu and scallions. They'll also see diners oohing and aahing as they eat the raw fish and drink sake. Those sights might be enough to send locals running to the restaurant for a bite.
Because the webcam shows live shots, it's worth watching only during West Coast dining hours.
-- Surfline, www.surfline.com
If you're longing to run barefoot on the sand or dip your toes into the breaking surf, this site can help you plan a trip to the beach. Surfline offers cybersurfers a live glimpse at 55 beaches worldwide.
The 360-degree rotating webcams are intended to attract visitors who love to ride the ocean waves. The company said the cams account for 25 percent of the site's 8 million to 9 million monthly page views. Once at the site, viewers can chat about wipeouts, read magazine articles on surfing competitions and buy wet suits.
The webcams' live streaming video also allows you to monitor the coastline's crowds and weather conditions, which may change drastically from the morning forecasts.
At 7 a.m., meteorologists predict the day's wind conditions and water temperature. The site lists the time and height of the beach's high and low tides as well as the surf forecasts for those who want to ride the waves.
And, if you can't quite make it to the beach, you can always replay the video taken earlier in the day to see what you missed.
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