The first online 'coffee cam': XCoffee

April 17, 2017
by Mark Ollig

This story begins in 1991 with a group of academic researchers working in the University of Cambridge, England, computer science study lab called the Trojan Room.

These researchers spent most nights working on computer and network programming, and they, of course, consumed large amounts of coffee.

The one coffee machine was located in the corridor directly outside the Trojan Room.

This one coffee machine was shared by about 15 researchers working throughout the multi-story university building complex.

Of course, having a freshly-brewed pot of coffee available at all times was of the utmost importance.

However, a problem soon developed.

Researchers working in the lower floor offices of the building, needed to walk up several flights of stairs to get to the coffee machine.

During their journey up the stairs carrying their empty coffee cup, they did not know whether there was any coffee in the pot.

Understandably, frustration would set in whenever a researcher discovered an empty coffee pot.

One obvious option would have been to install another coffee machine, but we must remember; these were academic researchers living on a very limited budget.

The researchers gathered, pooled their talents, and came up with an ingenious plan for having their computers know how much coffee was left in the coffee pot before trudging up those stairs.

This innovative plan developed into what became known as XCoffee.

Researchers working in the Trojan Room noticed a number of shelving racks containing inventoried computer servers to be used for maintenance testing of the university’s data networks.

They also discovered one unused Acorn Archimedes computer server installed with the X Window System protocols (hence the name XCoffee).

This computer server also contained a gray-scale video-frame grabber circuit card.

A frame grabber is a device which takes a picture, or captures still-frame images and saves them digitally (in this case, it would be used to capture images coming from an analog video camera).

The first frame grabbers could only grab and save one still-frame digital image at a time.

Utilizing a retort stand, used for holding scientific equipment, the researchers mounted a camera onto it and pointed the lens towards the coffee machine, specifically, in the direction of the coffee pot itself.

They then ran all the cabling under the floor from the coffee camera location to the Acorn Archimedes computer server equipped with the frame-grabber in the Trojan Room.

One of the researchers, Paul Jardetzky, coded a server software computer program which would run on the Acorn Archimedes computer equipped with the video-grabber obtaining live images of the coffee pot.

The video-frame grabber would then capture these live still-frame images of the coffee pot about once every three seconds.

Quentin Stafford-Fraser, a researcher in the Trojan Room, worked on an ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) communication switching network. He wrote the code for the “coffee client” software computing program.

Stafford-Fraser’s client software program operated on the researchers’ computers in the building connected to the university’s internal data network.

This client software program communicated with the Acorn Archimedes computer’s newly-written server software.

The client program displayed the latest image of the coffee pot onto a corner of the display screen on a researcher’s computer – so they were seeing a near real-time image of how much coffee was left in the pot.

It took about a day for the programmers to get the XCoffee camera program fully up and running over the university’s internal local area network.

The software application operated over a MSNL (Multi-Service Network Layer), which is a network layer protocol designed for ATM networks.

The most current coffee pot image was updated onto the university’s internal local area network, and would appear inside a small onscreen box (Windows dialog box) displayed on each researcher’s computer screen.

This was acceptable by everyone, because, according to Stafford-Fraser, the coffee pot filled rather slowly, and since they were using a greyscale photo capture, the images looked fine.

The researchers working upstairs and in other parts of the building would now be able to visually see the status of the amount of coffee remaining in the coffee pot on their computer screens.

They could now confidently leave their computer station, and walk to the coffee machine, knowing there was coffee in the pot.

By 1993, a new video frame grabber was being used, and frequently updated coffee pot images were being broadcast onto the internet.

XCoffee became very popular; in fact, it went viral over the Internet.

The coffee-cam internet website informed its online viewers, “The lights in the Trojan Room aren’t always switched on, but we try to leave a small lamp pointing at the coffee pot so you can see it at night.”

By 1994, the idea of remotely monitoring a coffee pot in near real-time became so popular, a reporter from a local BBC radio station interviewed the XCoffee university researchers to discuss how they did it.

Here is the audio of the 1994 BBC interview: http://bit.ly/2ooUg4G.

Sadly, the computer server responsible for providing the visual images of this famous coffee pot to the online world was officially turned off Aug. 22, 2001.

The university’s URL link for the Coffee Cam still exists at http://bit.ly/2o6mKP7.

Your investigative columnist located a photo of the famous coffee pot taken from one of the researcher’s computer screens: http://tinyurl.com/4vh8cxk.

Yours truly was also privileged to correspond via Twitter with one of the researchers, Quentin Stafford-Fraser, who still lives in England.

I expressed my admiration to him in regard to his adventure with XCoffee.

Stafford-Fraser’s final message to me was, “Thanks Mark . . . And best wishes from this side of the pond!”

Enjoy a cup of coffee while reading through my daily Twitter messages at @bitsandbytes.

This column was originally published April 4, 2011, and was recently updated by the writer.

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