The webcam performer squirms on a sofa, facing the wall. Every now and then, she swivels her head and grins at the 'sexpo' audience. I wonder if she manages to maintain that energy level whenever she thrusts herself in front of the camera. She needs to do something theatrical because, in the flesh, exposed by the exhibition hangar's harsh light, she looks less than amazing. Even so, bedroom soft-porn stars such as the sexpo exhibitionist have come to define our understanding of webcams, injecting sensuality into the word. The Web reflects this bias. Tap 'webcam' into Google and many of the results have 'adult' attached - and why not? But adult webcams depicting 'verrry hot chicks' and the occasional hunk do not represent the whole picture. So, this week, this column wipes the smut from the lens to see what else is out there. Plenty, it turns out - so much so that I suspect much of the planet will eventually be under casual surveillance. One day, if you run a webcam search on the words 'junction 14th Avenue and Irving, Sunset, San Francisco', exactly that result will come up and we will have entered the surveillance society known as 'the panopticon'. Meanwhile, beyond the 'fleshcams', some internet-linked electronic eyes are trained on fascinating phenomena such as aquaria ( www.waquarium.org/cameras.html ). Others such as those arrayed at Surfline (surfline.com/surfline/reports/reportMap.cfm) focus on doing something useful - I wonder how many surfers have been saved from wipeouts by examining this site. Some webcams take an existential view, zooming in on nothing more remarkable than, say, a car park shroff office. The 'footage' is often incredibly boring. True, the 'you-never-know factor' increases the attraction slightly. If you remotely monitor some civic wilderness via a webcam site for 23 years, you might just witness a scuffle or someone taking a leak. But you will more likely see nothing except the light changing and you'll gradually lose the will to live. Total ennui is a certainty if you lurk at the Watching Grass Grow webcam ( www.watching-grass-grow.com ) or any of those that depict paint drying (watch out Hollywood!). To save you time, I've looked into the best moderately candid camera footage the internet offers. The views are real, I think. That said, it can be hard to tell the difference between a fresh perspective and a Quicktime movie. And unless you have a zippy broadband connection, you may only experience reality in extremely slow motion thanks to sluggish refresh rates (the number of times a screen image is 'painted' per second). Do not expect to see life in full swing. Be warned, too, that you may need to download plug-ins to see some reality flicks. That may seem like a lot of drawbacks, but when webcams work they give you an instant, engaging peek into the world beyond this humming city. Seven webcam sites worth looking into: Niagara Falls ( www.fallsview.com/Stream/NightVisionRefresh.shtml ) Gatorland Gatorcam ( www.gatorland.com/webcam/index.html ) Ghostcam ( www.angelfire.com/weird2/gwebcam/webcam.html ) Live Monkey Cam ( www.primatesaspets.com/livecam.html ) Leprechaun Watchcam ( www.irelandseye.com/leprechaun/lwatchnj.htm ) Mount St Helens VolcanoCam ( www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/volcanocams/msh ) Antarctic Webcam ( www.awi-bremerhaven.de/NM_WebCam ).