Web site offers ice sculpture viewing from comfort of home

Dozens of cameras show Fairbanks art without the cold

Posted: Tuesday, January 01, 2008

FAIRBANKS - Close to 10,000 people have viewed the ice sculptures in the North Pole Christmas in Ice park without braving the cold, thanks to dozens of Web cameras.

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They logged on to Ice Alaska's Web site and watched the action online.

Don Swarner and a team of volunteers positioned cameras at the 24 sculpture sites, as well as several cameras showing different angles of the kids' park. The cameras have automatically uploaded pictures to the Web every two minutes throughout the monthlong competition.

"We try to have a record of the carver shaping his piece," Swarner said.

This wasn't the first year Ice Alaska, the competition's organizer, has used webcams to reach a wider audience. The current system of cameras and computers, however is the most advanced to date.

"It's been a slow process developing a sure technology," said Jo Swarner, Don's wife and the volunteer Web site guru. "We've been learning a lot these past six years."

Six years ago the organization used a single camera to capture images from the annual World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks. Now there are more than two dozen cameras connected to their own server through a high-speed wireless network.

"As long as there's some light on the sculpture, these new cameras can give us a good quality picture," Don Swarner said.

The equipment has to be modified and protected from the severe cold. The cameras themselves can work at temperatures down to 50 degrees below zero, according to Swarner. Wireless system equipment is more sensitive.

"That stuff has to stay above freezing," he said.

During the December event, the Web site had nearly 159,000 page views from 9,371 visitors.

Swarner said he plans to create an even more complex system at the World Ice Art Championships in March. The plan is to have cameras at all the sites and live streaming video at the kids' park.

But first he has to build a network to handle the data load.

"We still don't know what our limits and capabilities are with our wireless networks," Swarner said. "We're going to be testing that from now until March."

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