When Len Evancic launched his Web guide to digital cameras that transmit continuously updated images to voyeurs' computer screens, most sites featured nothing more riveting than a fish tank or a coffeepot in a university lab.
Less than three years later, Leonard's Cam World (http://www.leonardsworlds.com/camera.html) links to more than 1,000 outdoor cams that show everything from icebergs marching past an Antarctic research station to the cloud-shrouded flanks of Japan's Mt. Fuji. Want to check the curl off Oahu's Sunset Beach, updated hourly? Point your browser to http://www. satlab.hawaii.edu/satlab/sunset.html. Curious to know if the maples are still flaming in southern Vermont? You'll find photographic evidence, posted daily through late October at http://www.vtweb.com/foliage/.
As Evancic readily admits, the recent explosion in the number of scenic Web cams hasn't been matched by a corresponding increase in quality. Download times remain agonizingly slow at many sites, with the resulting images grainy and blurred. Most cams don't operate at night, and malfunctions are common. For every postcard shot of ice skaters at Rockefeller Center, there are dozens of ho-hummers--from a parking lot on the campus of Eastern New Mexico University to a view of Cleveland's still-under-construction football stadium.
Web-based cams "are still in their infancy," says Evancic, who compares today's offerings to "the early days of television, when people sat around watching test patterns just because it was possible."
Like Leonard's Cam World, which incorporates maps and travel information through Excite's comprehensive City Net service, other cam sites are striving to provide more than a sense of novelty. While Resort Sports Network (http://www.rsn.com) posts frequently updated images from more than 40 ski resort cams, it also features daily snow reports and lists of last-minute lodging deals. And California's Venice Beach Cam (http://www.westland.net/beachcam/) links to profiles of local artists and background on how the town's signature canals were constructed.
But for many desk-bound viewers, the vicarious thrill of seeing palm trees in close-to-real-time is reason enough to visit: "I get e-mail from all over the world on a daily basis," reports Don Westland, who founded the Venice Beach Cam two years ago. "Most of the responses are people living in some boring part of the world telling me they wish they were in Venice."
Small bytes: Leaf peepers, take note: Dennis' Travel Link (http://members.aol.com/deconspray/seasonal.htm) supplies an extensive list of links to fall foliage sites from California to Alabama. . . . The October issue of Wired magazine (available at newsstands or on the Web at http://www.wired.com) takes a look at how five popular cities--Tokyo, London, Milan, Sydney and Hong Kong--stack up for wired travelers. Cell phones are ubiquitous in top-rated Tokyo, but renting one can be a bureaucratic nightmare for foreigners. Those who do snare one, warns Wired, should "respect Japanese etiquette and (not) make calls in public places such as hospitals, the subway or the Tea Garden at the Hotel Okura.". . . Small Luxury Hotels of the World, an association of more than 200 independently owned hotels, resorts and chateaux, now offers property descriptions, photographs of accommodations and online reservations (http://www.slh.com/slh/).
Bly welcomes reader comments; her e-mail address is Laura.Bly@latimes.com. Electronic Explorer appears monthly.