Dorm-room webcams are as commonplace on today's wired campuses as college rock bands and about as worthwhile. Now playing at Ohio State: a photo of Jeff's empty bed updated every few seconds. But there are a few exceptions to the dorm-voyeur doldrums. The latest and most techno-savvy webcam phenom is Here and Now (www.hereandnow.net), conceived by Oberlin College grad Erik Vidal (nephew of author Gore Vidal). Consider this the real Real World: A digital camera in the living room of Vidal's off-campus house broadcasts a round-the-clock unedited video and audio documentary of the lives of six students and their pals. The action during a recent keg party included drunken females wrestling, a 5 a.m. critique of Jewel's poetry, and someone crashing on the couch while ''Livin' La Vida Loca'' blared from the stereo.
''It takes a certain kind of personality to live your life on camera,'' says Lisa Batey, 20, whose candlelit bubble-bath poetry readings were a hit until chat-room pervs started shouting for her to ''put away the books.'' But with around 70,000 page views per day at its peak, at least a few of the site's visitors must have been interested in the poetry as much as the bath.
Batey and other roomies are away for the summer, though, and since they've been replaced by random visitors (like musicians attending Oberlin's Baroque Performance Institute), the pace has slowed. But Here and Now still makes a good on-screen companion, thanks to the ongoing music track featuring acts like Slowdive and Tricky: Vidal calls it ''ambient video wallpaper.'' The music is partly why Here and Now is more exciting than most cams, which are still stuck in the silent, regularly-updated-photo era. The drawback is that the audio and video work only with Microsoft's Windows Media Player on a PC.
For its creator, though, the biggest problem is the cost. It's free to watch, but Vidal is shelling out around $25,000 per month to run the video feed and equipment and is desperate to find a backer by August. He's optimistic, since two Internet broadcast-entertainment companies, Pseudo Online Network and DEN, received multimillion-dollar cash infusions in May. But those companies create advertiser-friendly commercial products, while the action on Here and Now is unpredictable. Advertisers are ''scared about getting involved in the whole thing unless it's scripted,'' says Vidal, who's even willing to go the product-placement route. ''The problem,'' he says, ''is when we start sucking down Pepsi even though we hate it.''
Yet Vidal plans to supply a dash of scripting and editing to the concept; he wants to set up houses in New Orleans and Tokyo, fill them with practicing musicians, and have editors in the basement a la The Truman Show manipulating the images and soundtrack. Think of it as a virtual fish tank filled with handsome twentysomethings. The only question now: Will anyone feed them? B+