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PUBLISHED: 11:12 AM on Wednesday, March 1, 2006
Distant greetings
Webcams allow users to see and be seen
Children playing in the park. A man on his cell phone. A boat leaving port.

Everyday life in Alaska's southeast cities.

But take a closer look: The children are waving. The man on the phone could be your son. The boat, well, it's still leaving port.

Any Internet surfer can now take a peek at the people and things in a number of Southeast Alaska's downtown squares by using public and privately owned webcams.

Such cameras in public places in Alaska are nothing new, but their numbers are growing.

In Juneau, there are at least 10 Webcams offering views of everything from the cruise ship docks and Eaglecrest's slopes to Tee Harbor and the Mendenhall Glacier.

General consensus among tourism officials is that cameras like these can be good publicity because they allow anyone from Portland, Ore. to Peru to see what's happening on the slopes, in the harbor, at the glacier and at other, less accessible, places.

For people interested in weather, webcams offer a fast look at storms. There are more than two dozen in the state to help people track weather including two in Haines.

A remote camera on Round Island - Walrus Island State Game Sanctuary offers views of frolicking walruses.

The Alaska Volcano Observatory captures live images of Augustine, Veniaminof and Spurr.

Even the Alaska Department of Motor Vehicles has mounted cameras in a few different offices and residents can now check to see how long lines are.

Webcams also give locals an offbeat way to say hello to friends and family far away. At a set time, you can stand in a webcam's view and wave to grandparents, buddies or just about anyone with Internet access.

Sitka has two webcams, the "South Cam" and the "West Cam," both accessed at http://www.sitka.net/livewebcam.shtml. Situated on top of the Troutte Center office building, the South Cam looks south over Harrigan Centennial Hall convention center.

"You'll see people down in front of the Harrigan building, waving their hands, trying to get caught by the camera," said Will Hanbury Jr., webmaster and PC support specialist for the City of Sitka, which operates the two cameras.

Sitka's "West Cam" is mounted on City Hall and overlooks Japonski Channel and Mt. Edgecumbe in the distance.

"If you wanted to be seen by that camera, you'd have to be on a boat parked in the marina," Hanbury said.

Ketchikan's webcam is mounted on the southeast side of the Salmon Landing Building, not far from the Dockside Gallery, and can be accessed at http: //www.earthcam.com/usa/alaska/ketchikan/.

From October through April, the camera is turned to focus on a dock and the mountains.

Standing on the dock, users can enter the camera's view and wave to online friends.

"You could run down to the dock, call that someone on the phone, and say 'look at me, I'm here,'" said Cheri Pyles, co-owner of Dockside Gallery.

"It might be even better if you brought a large 'Hi Mom' sign. That could be seen better."

In the summer, the camera focuses on cruise ships in the harbor, and it is almost impossible for people to enter its focus.

A webcam's key parts are similar to those of a human eye: there's a lens, a sensor, which like a retina receives images, and a computer chip, which functions like the brain to turn light patterns into data. Similar to film, webcams can create moving images by capturing a succession of still images, or frames.

In Southeast Alaska, most webcams capture one image and display it over a short period of time, somewhere between 20 seconds and a half hour. In Ketchikan, for instance, the image is updated every 20 seconds, which means you don't have to sit very long on the dock to be sure that you are being captured by the sensor.

However in Sitka, images are updated about every 15 minutes, which means that you have to appear within the camera's view for at least 15 minutes to ensure you are seen. And then you're guaranteed to be the star for the next 15 minutes.

The City and Borough of Juneau maintains two Webcams (http://www.juneau.org/cam/southcam.php and http://www.juneau.org/cam/northcam.php), both of which are located on the downtown branch of the public library.

One looks Southeast, over the cruise ship docks to the South end of Gastineau Channel.

The other faces northwest toward the center of downtown and has a view of Marine Park.

Images on the City's webcams are updated every 15-30 minutes, which means that you have to sit in their view for 30 minutes to be sure you're captured. Tip: Bring a picnic lunch.

Privacy concerns have long been associated with surveillance cameras and in Southeast Alaska.

It is unlikely an Internet viewer, such as Grandma, would be able to clearly see her grandchild's face, but to help her know it's you, there are a few pointers people with experience using publicly mounted webcams to communicate recommend:

• Wear colorful outfits (and never black) because images tend to be dark and grainy. Lighter clothes usually show up better.

• Pick a landmark, let your family know what it is and stand next to it. Carry a sign with large letters. They tend to show up.

• And, of course, bring a phone. It's fun to talk to people as you're waving to them over the Internet.


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