Here's Looking at You

Taking WCCO's Robocam out for a voyeuristic spin

Though he won't cite specific numbers, Craven says the Robocam gets "tens of thousands" of hits each day. Because the camera functions like a fast-moving Web server, more than one person can use it at once; each time a person clicks on an image to view, the server creates a queue. In a split-second it snaps the requested picture, then moves on to the next request. "It can't do two things at once," Craven explains. "It does one thing at a time--very quickly."

Who knew so many people were practicing their peeping? Suddenly, trying to peek into windows seems extremely commonplace. I poke around, looking down Nicollet and peering into the office buildings. But there's too much of a reflection to be able to see inside. I return to the apartments at Nicollet and 12th Street.

8:11 p.m.: Same white patio chairs as before. Wait! Someone's sitting there! I zoom in.

Think you're safe from prying eyes? If you're anywhere near Nicollet Mall and 11th Street, think again.
Think you're safe from prying eyes? If you're anywhere near Nicollet Mall and 11th Street, think again.

8:13 p.m.: It's a man. At least I think it's a man. He seems to be shirtless, sitting with his feet up on a table, talking on the phone. I zoom in some more.

8:14 p.m.: He gets blurrier.

8:34 p.m.: When I check back, two men are now sitting on the balcony. One may be the same man from before, with a white shirt on this time, but I can't see clearly enough to tell.

9:20 p.m.: It's dark now. Lights are on in buildings all around the corner, so I pick a few and zoom in. I can focus on some of the upper windows in the Dayton's building at Nicollet and Eighth Street. But all I see is a rectangle of bright yellow light.

9:23 p.m.: I turn westward, down 11th Street toward the Doubletree Guest Suites. I can see the lights on in some of the rooms, but I can't see in because of the awkward angle.

9:25 p.m.: I look back at my balcony. It's empty. Lights are on in the apartment, but I can't make out anything inside. I guide the camera westward along the building, past other lit windows.

9:30 p.m.: There's a lamp. I can see a framed picture on the wall of the room, but no one's there. Wait a minute! In the bottom left corner of the screen there's another window with a light on. Is that a head? It's a head! I zoom in.

9:31 p.m.: Yep, it's a head. Man or woman, I can't tell. The closer I try to get, the blurrier the image.

9:36 p.m.: The head is gone. A shadowy figure sits in the other room, under the lamp. That's all I can make out. What's the point of voyeurism if you can't see what anyone's doing?

Before heading home, I stop off for a moment and stroll along Nicollet. What is it, I wonder, that makes us so interested in looking into the lives of others? Is it simple curiosity about the way people live? Is it an attempt to expand our shrinking world? To connect with others? Or is it just titillation?

Having spent so much time staring at this street corner on a computer screen, it seems strange to stand in it, like stepping into a painting you've seen on a museum wall. As I look at the buildings that rise up all around me, I realize, with a smidgen of dismay, that I can see into windows just as clearly from here with my own eyes as I could through the Robocam. Only now I can hear the water gushing through the fountain at Peavey Plaza, the clink of glasses and plates at the tables outside the Local. I can smell the fish and chips at Brit's. I can stop and ask a security guard what that building is under construction across the street.

It's a pleasant evening, and as I walk, with the warm breeze brushing past, I think of the Robocam up there. Who knows? Maybe someone is watching me.

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