Believe it or not, people making art with webcams don’t rate very highly on the priority list for big computer companies. (Who would have thought?) On the PC, at least, there’s a thriving market for webcams for video chat, since so few PCs have built-in cameras. Meanwhile, on the Mac, Apple has absolutely zero interest in you using any webcams other than those built into their machines, or, if you’re lucky, one of the FireWire iSights Apple made before Apple discontinued them. (Given the high failure rate I’ve seen on the iSights, that assumes you’re lucky enough not only to have found one, but to have it still working.) Ditto, naturally, third-party manufacturers, since there’s unlikely to be any significant market for their wares — and they’re busy navigating the morass of driver development complexity on PCs.

Long story short: the Creative Labs Live! Optia I raved about in the fall is one of the few choices you’ve got that doesn’t require drivers. It’s USB video class-compliant, though unlike other USB classes, it’s not entirely clear that that’s all that meaningful.

But, for several glorious months, through last week, I was able to keep my Live Optia working perfectly with Processing (and thus QuickTime for Java) and QuickTime (via tools like Jitter). Until today, that is. Now I’ve got two of them, five Macs to test, and — nada. On 10.4.10 / QT 7.2 and 10.4.8 / QT 7.1.3 and 7.2, I get either a black screen or (in QuickTime video capture) garbled video. It looks like the sequence grabber isn’t properly setting the resolution, so pixels are being dumped arbitrarily from the camera … I suspect the other errors I’m seeing are also related. USB video class support is relatively new; it only hit iChat in 10.4.9 and may have reached the OS at the same time — I would know for sure, except documentation from Apple is scant.

I suspect some misbehaved QuickTime update, though I find it especially odd that it fails on multiple machines (all Intel — iMac, MacBook, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini) with different versions. I’ve tried reinstalling QT, zapping NVRAM (formerly PRAM), the lot. For once, I can’t blame QuickTime for Java, because everything else is broken, too.

Webcams working some of the time under unpredictable circumstances don’t inspire confidence. Suggestions, anyone? Any idea why this is happening? Anyone got a rock-solid solution for Mac webcams that doesn’t spontaneously cease functioning?

Incidentally, Windows isn’t much better; weird driver bugs there can cause fabulous results like an echo-cancellation driver knocking out USB MIDI devices, driver-related blue screens of death, and other goodies.

Maybe I should just start making my own cameras and writing my own drivers. Yeah, that’s it.