What is Webcam? Uses, Function & More

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What is Webcam

What is Webcam?

A webcam is just like a video camera and is specifically designed to record and stream images captured by it to the computer or to a computer network directly.

Webcams can be built-in peripheral devices or computer hardware and connected to the computer through a USB cable or by using Wi-Fi or wireless protocols.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • A webcam, with the help of software and other useful features, helps in transmitting better quality images over the internet in real time.
  • A webcam is different from a digital camera or a camcorder having no internal storage of its own. Since it is always connected to the computer to function, it uses the hard drive of the computer itself as its storage.

Understanding Webcam

What is Webcam 

A webcam is connected to your computer either externally or internally.

Since it plays the same role as the laptop camera, most people are not bothered about using a webcam instead of the integrated laptop camera.

However, there are lots of good things about a webcam, which when you know, will tempt you to use it instead of the laptop camera, and this is not only about the picture quality.

Webcams are not new. In fact, webcams were used on the internet way back in 1993 but its commercial use started a year later in 1994.

However, the early webcams could not do much apart from streaming stationary shots to websites over the internet.

Instant messaging clients added support to the webcams in the late 1990s and early 2000s due to the increased popularity of video conferencing.

At the same time, the laptop computer manufacturers also started incorporating webcams into the systems.

Evolution

The webcams use either a CMOS or CCD image sensor.

The design along with the display technologies evolved over time to offer the webcams that you get today. These are capable of supporting USB interface and broadband internet speeds.

Even the resolution of the webcams went up over time gradually and steadily.

Right from the 320×240 pixels resolution of the yesteryears it has come up to 1280×720 pixels and even 1920×1080 pixels resolution of today.

And, add to that, the high-end webcams of today can even offer a 4K resolution at 60 frames per second.

Popularity

The popularity of the webcams is increasing everyday due to the enhanced features and improved functionalities such as:

  • Automatic lighting control
  • Automatics face tracking
  • Autofocus and
  • Other real-time enhancements such as wrinkle smoothing, retouching and vertical stretch.

All these features have made using the webcams much easier as well.

Optics

Different webcams come with different lenses where the regular consumer-grade models come with plastic lenses.

These lenses can be moved in or moved out manually to adjust the focus of the camera.

There are also fixed-focus lenses available that do not offer such provisions for adjusting the focus.

The depth of field of a camera system is usually greater for lenses with smaller aperture or larger f-number and for small image formats as well and the webcams in particular use quite a large depth of field.

That is why the fixed-focus lenses do not affect the sharpness of the image significantly.

Field of View

The Field of View or FOV of the webcams can be different just as their presets.

Depending on the model, you can use 90° horizontal FOV for live streaming and for home and office use.

You may also use as high as 360° horizontal FOV in small, medium or large-sized rooms.

This means that, depending on your needs and preferences, the webcams can display the entire room or even a small portion of it for offering general vicinity.

Internal Software

The webcam can be burdened by huge amounts of data at times thereby needing built-in image processing apart from compression while transmission and storage.

Therefore, most of the webcams come with built-in ASIC or Application Specific Integrated Circuit for meeting the video compression requirements in real-time.

The support electronics of the webcam read the images captured by the device from the sensor and then transfer it to the host computer over the USB.

Every frame is typically transferred in an uncompressed form either in RGB or Red, Green Blue or in YUV where Y stands for luma or brightness, U for blue projection and V for red projection.

It may also be transferred in compressed form as Joint Photographic Experts Group or JPEG image.

External Software and Interface

The webcams come with several different interfaces as well. Out of them the major and most commonly used interfaces are:

  • USB or Universal Serial Bus
  • Ethernet and
  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers or IEEE 802.11.

There are also a few other types of interfaces used depending on the build and design of the camera such as:

Out of all these interfaces, the UVC or the USB Video Device Class has the best specs that allow inter-connectivity of webcams to the computers without needing any exclusive device drivers.

The UVC stream is handled most efficiently by different proprietary and free or open source software and other tools that can capture pictures or videos.

Uses of Webcam

What is Webcam

The most significant and common use of the webcams is as a video link that helps the computers to perform as videophones or videoconference medium.

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Some of the other common uses of a webcam are:

  • Computer vision
  • Security surveillance
  • Video broadcasting and
  • Recording social videos.

Here are all the uses of a webcam, both the major ones as well as the not-so-major ones, explained in brief.

  • Video-telephony – When the webcams are added to instant messaging it is easy to use chat services such as AOL Instant Messenger or VoIP or Voice over Internet Protocol services such as Skype so that users can reach out to millions of other users all over the world through the internet.
  • Remote work – Webcams encourage remote work over the internet whether it is office work, personal services or teaching. And, being relatively inexpensive, it is affordable by all.
  • Security and Surveillance – Since webcams can be used as surveillance cameras connected to the computer it enhances the security aspect of any premise. The recordings can be saved in the computer or uploaded to the internet and even emailed quickly. This helps in giving the exact details of a burglar to the police to help in the investigation.
  • Astrophotography – Since specific types of webcams can work in very low light it is a popular medium to capture images of the night sky by the astro photographers and astronomers. With the newer technologies, videos for a couple of seconds of a very faint and distant object can be taken and all the frames can be stacked together to get the still image of it with decent contrast.
  • Laser Beam Profiling – The linear proportional response of the CCD to the incoming light rays enable the webcams to be used for recording laser beam profiles by removing the lens and by switching to the Bayer mode that enables accessing the information of every single pixel and a resolution less than 3 µm.

Whether it is external or built in your laptop computer, some other surprising ways in which a webcam can be put to the best of uses apart from broadcasting your face when you make a video call are:

  • Creating your own stop-motion movies
  • Capturing time-lapse sequences such as weather patterns or plant growth
  • Capturing fun effects and even silly photos
  • Setting up a photo booth in a party
  • Making animated GIFs or
  • Unlocking the computer with automatic face recognition login
  • Playing motion games
  • Labeling your physical library of games, books, or DVDs and
  • Controlling the computer without using traditional keyboard and mouse setup.

Therefore, the functioning of the webcam can be much, much more than capturing still images, live videos, video conferencing and uploading photos on the internet.

This versatile device will help in your work from home or office, maintaining personal relationships even in difficult times such as COVID-19 pandemic, education, and training.

Working Process

A webcam broadcasts video images like a digital camera in real time by capturing light through the lens.

There is a set of small grids of miniscule light-detectors on the image-sensing microchip.

This can be a CCD or Charge Coupled Device or a CMOS or Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor image sensor, which is more commonly used nowadays.

The circuitry of the image sensor changes the picture captured by the camera into digital form which is typically a set of 0s and 1s that only a computer knows how exactly to read and handle.

There is no built-in memory chip or a flash memory card in a webcam as there is in a digital camera.

Therefore, a webcam cannot ‘remember’ pictures. It captures them and transmits immediately to the computer.

It is for this reason there is a USB or Universal Serial Bus cable attached with a webcam.

This USB cable performs dual functions such as:

  • It provides the necessary power to the webcam from the computer to perform and
  • It carries the digital information from the image sensor of the webcam to the computer.

The information then travels on to the internet.

There are some specific models of webcams that do not come with an USB cable.

These cameras use Wi-Fi to carry the images to the internet router to make them available to other machines within a network in your home or anywhere in the world by using the internet.

Therefore, it is the image sensor that is at the heart of the webcam. It is located underneath the circuit board and the lens and at the middle of the circuit.

When light zooms through the lens the ‘picture’ and hits the image sensor it is broken into separate pixels and are changed into numeric form.

Both CMOS chips and CCDs convert the incoming light rays initially into electricity but the CCD, being an analog optical chip, converts the light rays into different electrical signals.

These signals are transferred to one or more different chips to digitize them or change into numbers.

On the other hand, the CMOS chip will do all these things in one place right from capturing the light rays and turning them into digital signals, all on one chip.

Therefore, these chips work much faster to handle much higher volume than the CCDs.

However, the basic working process for both the sensors is the same.

They measure the brightness and color of every pixel and these are stored as binary numbers in a pattern of 1s and 0s or transmitted immediately down the wire.

Where is a Webcam in a Computer?

The built-in or internal webcam are not difficult to see. These are usually located in the middle of the top bezel of the laptop screen.

However, the external webcams can be anywhere and depend on where you place it. You can fix it on the top of the computer screen with the help of the clips in them pointing straight at you.

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You can even place an external webcam on a shelf nearby or anywhere according to your preference and need.

Need for a Webcam

One of the most significant reasons to use a webcam is to prioritize and enable face to face remote dialogue which will be more efficient, secure and engaging.

A webcam is best for video conferencing with business clients and stakeholders. This will foster engagement, connection and proactive rapport.

Since this is an age of remote working, a webcam will enable the workers to stay more proactive, productive and collaborative while working from home without any limitations that are commonly associated with the laptop cameras.

With optimal video and better audio experiences offered, a webcam is the best to use for business and even for online education purposes.

Visual clarity is essential while teaching so that the students can see and understand materials even through non-verbal communication.

Most importantly, with a built-in laptop camera there can be some privacy concerns if it is hacked.

As for the webcams such possibilities are quite low since these come with better and additional security features such as:

  • Lens covers or stickers to close access and
  • Hardwired built-in LED indicators to indicate that the camera is active.

Though a few specific laptop models do come with a few additional security features, those of the webcams are far better, at least as of now.

Therefore, if you are into regular video calling or chatting, you will be better off if you use a webcam instead of your laptop camera.

How to Start a Webcam in Windows?

It is not hard to install and start a webcam in Windows. There are a few easy steps to follow for both.

Ideally, there are three basic stages to get started with your webcam which includes:

  • Installing the webcam
  • Setting the webcam and
  • Testing the webcam.

Here are the steps to follow for all these three stages.

For insulating the webcam:

  • Attach the webcam to computer with the USB cable via one of the USB ports in your computer
  • Insert the CD of the webcam and run it on the CD drive
  • Wait for the setup page to open automatically.
  • Follow the instructions given on the screen which may involve clicking through a set of preferences and finally at the ‘Install’ button and
  • Wait for the process to end and the program to open automatically.

For plug and play models, things should start immediately after inserting the webcam.

At this point, it is time to set up the webcam and the following steps to follow:

  • Open the program of the webcam manually if it did not open automatically already
  • Mount the camera on top of the computer monitor with the clips in it or onto a flat and elevated surface if there are no clips at its base and
  • Adjust the webcam if required using the real-time footage as reference so that it points at your face from the preferred angle.

Now, the final step is to test the webcam, starting with the sound.

In order to test the sound of the webcam, you should look for any spikes in the activity next to the ‘Audio’ or anything similarly titled section in the window of the webcam.

If there isn’t any, it indicates that the microphone is not working. In that case you may have to enable the sound manually from the webcam settings or the computer settings.

You may also need or want to make some changes in the webcam settings for contrast, brightness, low-light response, and others.

If you are using Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows 10, or Windows 11 operating system, you can test the webcam by using the Windows Camera app.

Here are the steps to follow to open the Windows Camera app:

  • Click Start or press the Windows key
  • Type ‘camera’ in the Windows search box
  • Select the Camera app option from the search results.

If the webcam is on, when the app opens you will see the live video of yourself on the monitor. Make the necessary adjustments accordingly.

If you are using a computer running on macOS, you will need to use the Photobooth app to test the webcam. This is usually found in the Applications folder.

If your computer is running on Linux operating system you will need to use the cheese utility to test the webcam which is available with most package managers and you can use ‘APT’ or Advanced Packaging Tool of Ubuntu, which is a powerful command-line tool, in order to install it.

Once you are done with all these steps, you are ready to use the webcam connected to your computer to take still images, or shoot videos or start chatting.

Is a Webcam Better Than a Laptop Camera?

Yes, of course, a webcam is far better than a regular laptop camera and there are several good reasons to say so, though people used to using a laptop camera will usually disagree.

A laptop camera will technically work for making video or conference calls and other similar jobs, a function that has been used extensively in the past couple of years due to the Corona pandemic which kept everyone at home.

People relied heavily on video calls simply to stay in touch with their family and friends as well as to continue their work from home and the laptop camera served them well in that regard.

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It is true that people do not bother to buy and use a dedicated webcam having a laptop camera already. However, they do not realize the low resolution and poor image quality of the laptop camera.

In fact, it will not be an exaggeration if it is said that not using a webcam for the same and instead relying on the laptop camera is sort of doing a disservice.

The most significant constraint of a laptop camera is the lack of space that they have to deal with.

The bezels of the screen are becoming thinner and thinner with each passing day, leaving no scope for the manufacturers to fit in heavier and more powerful hardware of a webcam or any other type of camera for that matter.

This eventually translates to using a laptop camera with simply 720p resolution while the laptop screen itself may have gone past 1080p and reach 4K.

Even a wimpy 1080p webcam needs to have enough room for the two key components to install that will capture quality image such as:

  • A sensor of a decent size and
  • A good and powerful lens.

Yes, the laptop manufacturers have tried to resolve this issue and bolster the camera performance with gimmicky software but that did not help ultimately.

They even tried to relocate their camera from the top bezel to the bottom of the screen and even in keycaps but that produced an up-the-nose view!

So, a webcam is a necessity now especially for the work-from-home setup.

There is no point using a low resolution and inadequate laptop camera that will struggle to produce a decent picture.

In 2022, an average laptop camera will hardly make the cut when it comes to making video calls on a regular basis or while streaming.

A webcam, on the other hand, will make you look good, crisp, bright and non-pixelated. It will offer a much wider viewing angle or field of view to squeeze in lots of people or objects in a single frame.

Moreover, a good webcam will also come with a good microphone which is a plus for those who chat regularly.

Therefore, a laptop camera is good only for sporadic use but a webcam is good for regular use and to have a much better user experience overall with better features such as:

  • Better image quality
  • Better light sensitivity
  • Better focusing abilities and
  • Better zooming abilities.

Most importantly, you can position an external webcam anywhere you want to or feel comfortable.

Do All Laptops Have Webcam?

No, certainly not. Not all laptops today come with a built-in webcam or even an internal microphone.

Typically, most of the above-the-budget laptops today come with a webcam integrated into the display, just as the All-in-One computers.

These integrated webcams are quite convenient to use but there are some significant advantages offered by the external webcams.

However, there are also quite a few laptops available in the market that do not come with a webcam integrated into them. This is because the screen borders in them are too narrow to fit a webcam on it.

Also, if you look at the gaming laptops, apart from the extremely high end ones, you will hardly find a webcam integrated into them.

So, if you are not sure whether or not your laptop has a webcam, there are ways in which you can check it out.

You can do it by visually inspecting it and the microphone on the top bezel of the screen of your laptop.

Sometimes, it may also be located at the bottom of the screen. And, in a few specific laptop computer models, there can even be a pop-up camera somewhere down the screen or within the keyboard space.

However, if you cannot confirm by visual inspection, you can use the Device manager of your laptop computer.

This will list all of the internal as well as the external devices integrated or connected with your system if they are connected and installed properly.

In Windows 8 or Windows 8.1, right click on start and select the Device Manager from the pop-up menu and then double-click on the ‘Audio Inputs and Outputs’ to check the internal microphone and on ‘Imaging Devices’ to check the built-in webcam.

When you double-click on the name of the device and open its ‘Properties’ window, you can even check the specs of the webcam and the microphone.

Conclusion

At the end of this article you know that you can do much more with a webcam than you thought, over and above the traditional applications as a fun-time waster or simply for a video chat with your friends or colleagues.

So, get yourself a webcam to make the best use of it and unleash your creativity.

About Puja Chatterjee

AvatarPuja Chatterjee, a distinguished technical writer, boasts an extensive and nuanced understanding of computer technology. She is an esteemed graduate of the Bengal Institute of Management Studies (BIMS), where she honed her skills and knowledge in the tech domain. Over the span of more than 12 years, Puja has developed a deep expertise that encompasses not only technology writing, where she articulates complex technical concepts with clarity and precision, but also in the realm of client relationship management. Her experience in this area is characterized by her ability to effectively communicate and engage with clients, ensuring their needs are met with the highest level of professionalism and understanding of their technical requirements. Puja's career is marked by a commitment to excellence in both written communication within the tech industry and fostering strong, productive relationships with clients.

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Puja Chatterjee
Puja Chatterjee, a distinguished technical writer, boasts an extensive and nuanced understanding of computer technology. She is an esteemed graduate of the Bengal Institute of Management Studies (BIMS), where she honed her skills and knowledge in the tech domain. Over the span of more than 12 years, Puja has developed a deep expertise that encompasses not only technology writing, where she articulates complex technical concepts with clarity and precision, but also in the realm of client relationship management. Her experience in this area is characterized by her ability to effectively communicate and engage with clients, ensuring their needs are met with the highest level of professionalism and understanding of their technical requirements. Puja's career is marked by a commitment to excellence in both written communication within the tech industry and fostering strong, productive relationships with clients.
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