New Drivers For Ancient Webcam

For those of us who are a little older, the 90s seem like they were just a few years ago. The younger folks might think that the 90s were ancient history though, and they might be right as we’ve been hearing more bands like Pearl Jam and The Offspring playing on the classic rock stations lately. Another example of how long ago the 90s were is taking a look at the technological progress that has happened since then through the lens of things like this webcam from 1999, presuming you load up this custom user space driver from [benjojo].

Thankfully the driver for this infamous webcam didn’t need to be built completely from scratch. There’s a legacy driver available for Windows XP which showed that the camera still physically worked, and there’s also a driver for Linux which was used as a foundation to start working from. From there a USB interface was set up which allowed communication to the device. Not a simple task, but apparently much easier than the next steps which involve actually interpreting the information coming from the webcam. This is where a background in digital signal processing is handy to have. First, the resolution and packet size were sorted out which led to a somewhat recognizable image. From there a single monochrome image was pieced together, and then after deconstructing a Bayer filter and adding color, the webcam is back to its former 90s glory.

[benjojo] has hosted all of the code for this project on a GitHub page for anyone who still has one of these webcams sitting around in the junk drawer. The resolution and color fidelity are about what we’d expect for a 25-year-old device that predates Skype, Facebook, Wikipedia, and Firefox. And, while there are still some things that need to be tweaked such as the colors, white balance, and exposure, once that is sorted out the 90s and early 00s nostalgia is free to flood in.

45 thoughts on “New Drivers For Ancient Webcam

        1. Wow. Yeah that’s just hardware Zoom. I guess it is to be expected was this didn’t take off until hardware was homogenized so that all the required parts were in everything, and a sufficient general-use network was in place with enough bandwidth, such that it becomes merely a software product instead.

    1. right. Zoom, webEx, Skype, Discord, Twitch, YouTube, OnlyFans… All dismal failures.
      (I’m not fond of it either. I’d much rather post information in plain text form, ascii art and all. But the “consumers” want beautifully formatted full-color diagrams and animations, a talking head, a soothing voice, and a nice body in revealing clothes. Sigh.)

    2. Dude… You see NO appeal to a usb-connected camera? You have no imagination… Even with such an old camera, surely you can think of ONE project to do with it? What happened here? I haven’t been to this site in a year, and suddenly almost every comment section is filled with negativity. Saddens me.

  1. Such webcams were used by hobbyists of astrophotography, too.
    The big sensor was picking up low light quite good.
    Some users had peeled of the UV protective film, too, to increase sensitivity.

    Also, the cameras in cell phones in the mid-late 2000s weren’t any better.
    They had VGA (640×480) resolution, at best.

    Cheap CIF and QCIF USB handy cameras were being a thing, too.
    I’ve seen plenty of those little low-res webcam/digicam hybrids that were built into calculators etc.

    HD Webcams (similar to 720p) didn’t really take off since 10 years or so.
    But the article makes it look as if the 90s were primitive.

    That’s not the case. In 1992, the Kodak Photo CD standard allowed pictures to be stored in 4k resolution
    Customers could bring their film to Kodak, then they would get a Photo CD back, with pictures from thumbnail size to poster size.

    The 90s were quite advanced, if you were willing to open your eyes and go beyond what was mainstream.

      1. Some webcams work surprisingly well as relatively high power microscopes, easily focusing on plant cells and nematode worms, etc. Removing the IR filters can allow a lot more, especially if they are subsequently replaced with something like a hole punch circle of floppy disk. You get to see odd patterns on flowers and butterflies, not to mention, things like cococola and black bin bags become almost transparent. The temperature range isn’t as good as a thermal camera, but you’ll still see something like a soldering iron glow. Certainly useful for some projects.

    1. I can confirm as I did it. It was famous among amateur astronomers because it featured a CCD sensor instead of a (terrible at that time) CMOS sensor. You can find some pictures taken with that webcam on my website.

      1. Wasnt this the other way around? When Connectix Quickcam released in 1994 there were no CMOS cameras/sensors at all(1). Thats why it used Texas Instruments TC255. Astronomy site using one ->

        1) This is why in 1992 NASA engineers Eric Fossum & Sabrina Kemeny started research into feasibility of this approach, and in 1995 founded Photobit. CMOS patent is from 1997 and first CMOS webcams from Logitech (who just acquired Connectix Quickcam in 1998) started coming out that year (QuickCam Home/Pro).

        1. When I started, in 2004, the market of cheap webcams was flooded with terrible CMOS sensors, very noisy in low light conditions. The Philips Vesta was the most famous cheap CCD webcam available. Additionally, it was quite easy to hack to force it to take long exposure pictures. It was a hardware hack which needed the serial port to work. I wrote a software to reach the same goal by using the modem port of my laptop.

          1. By 2004 CCD peaked and CMOS was getting barely maturing. As you said there was a flood of cheap bad CMOS sensors, meanwhile CCD was a mature technology winning in Cinema, like Viper FilmStream used by Michael Mann to shoot 2004 Collateral. A year later Arri released CMOS D20, then Red One in 2007. It took ~10 years for CMOS to become good.

  2. Hmmph. I think I just recently gave up and threw away my more ancient webcams.
    New cameras (if your computer doesn’t have one built in) were too cheap to struggle with the old ones.

    1. That wasn’t wise, I think. Especially Linux has webcam support that’s hit and miss. The recommend solution still is to grab a box of cameras and test them one after another.
      Because, at the chipset level, one and the same webcam model can be different.
      And they all use different types of compression. Merely JPEG is supported properly, I believe. So if the webcam is too old or too new, Linux can’t handle it.
      And then there are custom drivers which could theoretically made the camera work, but haven’t been maintained for 25 years anymore. Thus, tgey can’t be loaded in modern day Linux anymore. Not without a major rewrite.

      1. All contemporary USB webcams are UVC (USB Video Class). I haven´t seen a USB webcam in the last 10 years which did not work out of the box in Linux.

        These cameras typically support uncompressed (limiting resolution and/or FPS), MotionJPEG, and since a few years H.264. The latter is the only one which might not work OOTB, but is only somewhat important with a 4K webcam. MotionJPEG covers 99% of all use cases.

        I had/have exactly 2 webcams which required proprietary drivers, the Philips PWC 680 from ~2001 (see article), and the XBOX Kinect.

  3. Somewhere I have a Lego Mindstorms camera, that I think was built from a similar Logitech camera. I’ll have to keep this in mind for the day that I drag all that stuff out and start poking it again.

  4. Back in the 90s, I was using a noisy, NTSC (never the same color) video camera (minus the separate, full-sized, VHS VCR) and an ISA capture card. For eBay stills, I would take 10-20 exposures, then use a program called Bitty (I think) to average them all together to reduce the noise, then I would tweak the levels by hand to make it look somewhat life-like. An involved process for which I have zero nostalgia.

    1. Hi there! Same here, but a different setup. I’ve used a hi-res CCIR b/w tube camera from the 70s..
      It had an Vidicon or one of its successors, good optics and a little b/w monitor in the finder.
      The camera was attached to my Hauppauge WinTV card (ISA) via UHF connection.
      Software ran on Windows 3.10.. I’ve used that camera many nights to capture the moon and trees at night.
      The software also had a Videotext decoder, so I could read news on my PC. Good memories. ^^

    2. Speaking of hooking cameras to a computer, Î remember something else that might be interesting.
      Back in 1986, the company NewTek sold a frame grabber for the Amiga 1000 computer.
      It was called “DigiView” and allowed for grabbing monochrome RS-170 (mono NTSC) and CCIR (mono PAL) still images.

      The video source could be a VCR (paused) or a camera on a tripod or special mounting.
      By using a colour wheel, colour images could be digitized.
      The image quality wasn’t bad, on par with that of VGA webcams of the late 90s or the 2000s.
      So even the 1980s were not that primitive. There were methods and ways to get things done.

  5. From the link: (I must say the quality of webcams has definitely improved since 1999)

    Really? Last time I bought a webcam it was said to be full HD but in practice was a murky 720p at best, and the quality was really not better than a VGA webcam from that era.
    And a large percentage of webcams sold are still 640×480 and also not better than ancient stuff in image quality.
    Although you do have $300+ webcams that are good, but paying that for a webcam is sort of daft you know.

    1. Then the last time you bought a webcam must have been in 2000. Right now a properly full-HD 1080 resolution Logitech HD Pro goes for (well) under a hundred bucks on Amazon. Then again, if you buy the first webcam you find in a supermarket you betcha it will be a $10 640×480 resolution jobbie even today. CAVEAT EMPTOR, FFS! The tech is available for stupid cheap, but you do need to not be an idiot…

  6. Well, my “Logitech QuickCam Pro 3000” still works fine under modern Windows with the 64bit drivers for the 4000 model (audio doesn’t work I think – or it works but only if the cam itself is off / not recording?)

  7. As far as I knew my quickcam express still worked plug-and-play, at least when I tried it on raspberry pi close to 5 years ago. I recall it simply lighting up and giving me the worst image I’ve ever seen

  8. Back at the beginning of the pandemic, people were selling the older Logitech cameras left and right for lots of $$$, in many cases knowing full well that they wouldn’t work with a modern operating systems and programs. Glad to see that somebody has invested the effort to get some of them working again.

  9. I was contracted to do support for Connectix in the 90’s and never got a support call for those, but did play with them a bunch. Just before the Playstation lawsuit ended them, was poking around a Virtual PC install CD and somehow got Austin Powers’ plan to save the world instead of the promised help file. Couldn’t read it because the customer was on the phone, but can’t find it anywhere.

  10. My first Webcam predated usb. It came with its own PCI slot card. You could then use the glorious 15fps, grayscale, at 160×120 or 320×240 if you had the bandwidth.
    About the only use case at the time was ICU, which thankfully wasn’t full of dicks like today’s random chat offerings like Chat Roulette.

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