Design Of Everyday Things

by Manasvi Madan

#12 Brilliance of Everyday Objects

Problem: Coffee less trips to break room

Solution: Let’s keep a track of the coffee levels from where we are sitting

The year was 1991, and the computer science faculty at Cambridge University was tired of walking all the way to the breakroom only to find an empty coffee pot.

So, what did those Cambridge computer whizzes do? Set up a rotating schedule to assign coffee-making duties? Brew a new pot anytime they saw the machine was empty? Focus on bigger problems?

Nope, nope, and nope. They invented the frickin’ webcam.

The group of caffeine-jonesing faculty put their heads together and designed a camera that would transmit a 129×129-pixel image, in black and white, of the coffee machine. The images were updated once a second, so when viewed live it looked like a very slow, low-res video.

The coffee conundrum was solved! No one would have to endure a fruitless (“coffeeless”?) trip to the breakroom ever again.

When it was first invented, the coffee cam was patched directly into the Cambridge computer network (this was before the days of the internet). But once the world wide web came around, the enterprising scientists put the coffee cam online. Now, anyone anywhere in the world with a connection to the interwebs could watch the coffee percolating.

Millions of curious techies across the globe tuned in to see the feed. The researchers received requests from countries as far away as Japan to leave the breakroom light on at night so that the coffee cam picture could be visible around the clock.

A worldwide phenomenon was born! And all because the Cambridge computer geniuses didn’t want to waste a three-minute walk.

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