The minicam video watch

Thursday, November 23, 1995

How and why we did it - a personal account (Julian Meadow)

Not content with the post-dated coverage of erupting Mount Ruapehu, I set out on this mission to bring live pictures of the mountain into homes around the world.

After watching the evening news on Monday, 25th September and seeing the same TV footage repeated about 12 times in the space of an hour, I thought, what would it be like to actually see the action from Mt. Ruapehu as it was happening, live, at home. It took a good nights sleep before I realised the idea was possible, if the right bits of technology were brought together. From then on, the idea had stuck and the challenge was on to do it. Once the system had been assembled and fully tested, we jumped into a car, together with Don Stokes from Victoria University and cameraman Johnny Wraight, and headed for Mount Ruapehu. Five hours later (2:00 pm Tuesday, 4 October to be precise), we arrived at Whakapapa Village (pronounced Fak-a-papa), approximately 15 km from the Crater Lake, on the west side.

When we arrived, there was low cloud cover over most of the mountain, but the small areas of blue sky indicated the weather was changing. We couldn't have timed it better. About 20 minutes later, the cloud moved off the mountain, to show a beautiful white plume rising from the Crater Lake. Also visible were two lahars cutting through the southern side of the Whakapapa ski-field. The spectacular views gave us an extra buzz, and the race was now on to find a suitable site to set up the equipment and plug Mount Ruapehu into the net, before the weather packed in. The first site inspected was an Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences observatory hut, which had great views of Mount Ngauruhoe, but an obstructive view of Ruapehu.

Unperturbed, yet anxious, we unanimously decided to explore "The Grand Chateau," a luxury hotel built in 1929, and more importantly five stories high, for a suitable site. We spoke to the receptionist of the Chateau and asked to speak to the Duty Manager, who suggested we speak with the General Manager Chris Griffin - great, straight to the top - long live hierarchy.

So how were we to convince Chris to let four people barge into his salubrious peaceful, timeless (!!!) hotel, bags in hand. Easy, ask him if he'd heard of the Internet - YES, you have - I couldn't believe our luck (he'd recently been to a tourism conference overseas and had heard the word). From there on, it was plain sailing. Before we knew it, we were in his office chatting about the pros and cons of networks and their effects on travel patterns. Well, I'd have loved to have chatted into the wee hours, but we were here on a mission, to plug a mountain (an erupting one at that) into the net, and the tantalising view from his office window was too much. Like a stripper on her first night, we started unbuckling straps, ripping open zippers and plugging in as fast as we could. It felt great. And then we hit a problem. As well as being rather tall, the Chateau was also very thick, and the Telecom cellular signals couldn't quite make it all the way through the building. So what did we do? Opened the window and explored the roof, antenna in hand, of course - what else. The cable reached (just) and after bringing a couple of rocks (that probably originally came from the mountain) up through the lounge, through the window and onto the roof, we had a secure antenna. We busied ourselves checking the cellular connection stability, only to find it kept dropping calls. This was not good.

Do we go with what we've got or move on to another site? Since we planned to leave the system running unattended, we decided the stability risk was too great and started packing up. Chris volunteered his living room and we sped up the road to his house, with great mountain views continuing to entice us. The setup happened much quicker this time (practice makes perfect) and I was on the roof again as the antenna came out the window, ready for testing. But again, the signal strength was not enough. John got one bar strength on his cell phone, I had two showing on mine, Richard two as well, and Chris was talking back to the hotel (Don wasn't sure about his). It was just like a scene from Star Trek. There we were, phones in hand, wondering about the living room, checking the cellular readings - bizarre.

And then Chris hit on it (note, to my knowledge Chris has not undertaken any scientific or communications studies, unlike the rest of us present). Why not move the equipment to the side of the room, place the camera next to the side window and move the antenna to the back of the room, instead of on the roof, which was obstructing the pick-up? I could have hugged him - I should have - it worked beautifully.

And there we were, transmitting a colour picture once a minute, down to Victoria University and onto the Internet, available to anyone that knew it was there. It was 4:30 pm, the view was spectacular, and most of New Zealand would be going home in 30 minutes to turn on the TV and blob out.

Now what I am about to tell you may not be approved by some, but I think it is justifiable. Before leaving Wellington, I set up the following announcement e-mail message:

Subject: New Zealand Volcano now wired live! Press Release 2/10/95: Volcano-CAM on Mt. Ruapehu is now online

Mt. Ruapehu, the largest mountain in the North Island of New Zealand, started erupting on Saturday, 23rd September 1995. Not content with the television footage, network adventurers Julian Meadow and Richard Naylor decided to position a video camera on the mountain. It's connected via the Telecom NZ cellular network and is transmitting colour pictures over the net. Check out the following URL to view the latest action, updated every minute. This site is not operating at present time because the volcano is not in eruption.

A volcano watchers mail list was also created, comprising of approximately 60 e-mail addresses. I chose people I knew that would be interested; friends, work colleagues, scientific organisations and the media. All it took was one phone call, once I knew live pictures were being transmitted. And the rest is history.

Driving back home was initially an anti-climax. So we'd done it, so what? It was technically possible anyway, it just took some time to put it all together. And then I started to think. I could now go home, open up my laptop, dial-in over two loosely bound, pre-historic copper cables, and get live pictures in my living room of a mountain four hours drive away. Only it was dark, so I had to wait until morning.

What we've done is put a true meaning on the word "living room." Never mind all that hyper-virtual-reality stuff - what we're talking here is hyper-live-reality. I could go and sit in Chris' living-room in Whakapapa village and look at Mount Ruapehu (in fact, I did). Then again, I can now sit in my living room in Pukerua Bay, at the bottom of the North Island, and look at Mount Ruapehu (in fact, I do). Just like you can, and probably are doing now.

It wasn't until the first e-mail messages started coming through that I really began to realise what we had done. First a school in Denmark, then an overseas New Zealander in the States. Then someone saying they would be visiting in a week and was it safe to bring their camera (the user manual informed they should keep the camera away from volcanic ash). Yes it is safe. In fact, we're probably the only ones telling the rest of the world it's safe. The TV reporters have packed up and gone, the International press circus are now chasing the O.J. Simpson verdict, and Mount Ruapehu looked beautiful this morning with a large plume rising into a blue sky.

The skiers will probably be heading up the mountain at the weekend, skiing round the lahars, checking out the after effects. I might even go up myself. I won't have to call-up a ski-phone number, or get a mountain report fax-update. The picture is there on the net, live, for a while yet. If you believe of, or know of, any other instance when live pictures of an erupting volcano were transmitted over the Internet, could you please e-mail me?

We've had an enormous amount of support so far, and here's a sample from our mailbox.

"Your Volcano-Cam is truly inspiring! You are 'doing' in the spirit of Maurice and Kattia Krafft who sacrificed their very souls to document volcanoes"

"Thank you for bringing us images of the eruption on the other side of the globe. My students are following the eruption and we will use material from the WWW"

"This earth science class is studying volcanoes and Ruapehu started to erupt. We have been watching the net for verbal updates, but you have really made this a live experience for us."

"I hope your volcano-cam is well protected!"

"Keep the feedback coming, especially if you can tell us if you know of anybody else that may have done this sort of thing before." Julian Meadow

This is a slightly abbreviated account of the mini-cam set-up on Ruapehu.

Alan V. Morgan