Here's Looking at You

Taking WCCO's Robocam out for a voyeuristic spin

Wednesday, 4:51 p.m.: The balconies behind the downtown YWCA. Perfect! I zoom in on one, but no one's there. I try to peer through the windows, but all I see is a fuzzy reflection of the patio furniture outside.

4:53 p.m.: I pull back. What's that? Zoom in. It's a charcoal barbecue grill.

4:54 p.m.: A screen door seems to be open.

4:56 p.m.: Pull back again. Empty chairs.

4:57 p.m.: More empty chairs. Adhering to the "watched pot never boils" philosophy, I give it a rest for a minute, figuring I can swoop back in and catch someone doing, well, something.

4:59 p.m.: Still just the empty chairs. Again I pull back to get a glimpse of more than one balcony.

5:01 p.m.: There's someone watering the plants!

5:02 p.m.: A blurry square of gray cinderblock, and a message at the top of the screen: "The camera is at its upper limit." Finally a human being in its natural habitat and I can't get this contraption to pan high enough to watch.

This is just another in a long line of disappointments I've encountered in my short career as a voyeur. I've been spending more hours than I care to admit, watching--or, more accurately, trying to watch--people through the Internet camera perched atop the WCCO-TV (Channel 4) news building at the corner of Nicollet Mall and 11th Street South in downtown Minneapolis. It's not the first Webcam I've seen, but wcco.com's Robocam is different. Instead of snapping a static shot of a scene and refreshing it every minute or so, it allows users to point the Robocam wherever they want along a panorama of Minneapolis skyline, from Orchestra Hall on the east all the way down the northern end of Nicollet Mall. You can also zoom in. Way, way in.

From the ground you'd never know the camera is there. It's just one of several gadgets on and around the metal scaffolding on top of the three-story news building. WCCO introduced the feature a year and a half ago, but recently a user pointed me toward the Web site and raised the question of whether this camera's range and magnifying ability might be an infringement on people's privacy. With Rear Window-style Robocam visions dancing in my head--you know, "Man kills wife, buries body in backyard"--I resolve to have a look.

What I find is, "Woman eats French fry."

"Man sleeps on bench in broad daylight."

"Bus drives down street."

"Pavement struck by sunlight."

Real life, it seems, is less like a Hitchcock thriller, more like watching paint dry.

I start by checking out the entire scene at the intersection of 11th and Nicollet. Some people appear to be hanging around on the corner, so I zoom in. What I get is an up-close view of the cracks in the sidewalk.

I've discovered the first difficulty of Web voyeurism: It's slow. And people, darn them, have a tendency to move.

Edified by this knowledge, I attempt to focus on some people who are sitting still. Aha. Brit's Pub. Outdoor tables. Lunchtime. I click the image to get a closer look at some diners. Many are in shadow, but I finally manage to focus on a woman. She's having lunch across from another person, but there's a pole obstructing my view of her companion. Zooming in to 36 times the image's normal size, it looks as though she's taking a bite of a sandwich. At 54 times, I see her eating what looks like a French fry. At 72 times, I see her lift a fork to her lips, then take a sip through a straw. But the closer I get, the grainier the image. For all I know, she's actually playing the piccolo.

Strike two for Web voyeurism.

All the while, I can't help wondering about the people I'm trying to look at. They almost certainly are unaware that there's a camera trained on them. Would they care?

"We're not talking about some magic Superman camera that looks through brick walls," offers Jane Kirtley, the University of Minnesota's Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law. "All you're really capturing is something on the public street that anyone can see."

Legally, says Kirtley, anything you can see from a public place--even if you're peering into a private space--is fair game: "People who are caught on camera have no expectation of privacy."

In fact, muses Jon Grant, a psychiatrist at the U of M, in today's society privacy may be nothing more than an antiquated notion. "Most people have decided in this day and age that they don't have much privacy," Grant says. "We may have to rethink what we think of as paranoia," he adds with a laugh. "When people say, 'I feel like I'm being watched all the time'--well, you are."

The Robocam is one of the most popular features on wcco.com, according to managing editor James Craven. People from around the nation click in to check out the changing skyline, he says. Others, he speculates, use it simply to people-watch, while eating lunch in their offices. "People are somewhat voyeuristic," says Craven, who admits the camera is more novelty than news source. "It's basically an entertainment thing. It's something for people to have fun with."

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.

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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