The first thing I check on when ringing Remote Lounge's publicity coordinator is the bathrooms. There are no Webcams there, right?
Nope, no cameras in the bathroom, he assures me.
They're about the only media-free location in the East Village cocktail bar, which seeks to stand out in the New York City nightlife clutter with a gimmick for the Internet age: More than 60 cameras track all activity within the bar, broadcasting the scene on monitors that dominate the space and on the two dozen "cocktail consoles" scattered throughout.
The 2001-esque consoles are the nerve center of Remote. On a chilly Thursday night, I'm able to snag one within minutes of entering the bar, accompanied by my friends John and Fahmi. Armed with bottles of Original Sin cider and some sort of glowing cranberry-orange concoction devised by Fahmi, we quickly turn our attention to the consoles' main attraction: the joystick.
Remote's streaming video system (version 1.15, the consoles inform us) lets patrons flip through several dozen channels, panning around the lounge for attractive fellow bar-goers and exhibitionist acts. If you see anything you like, one push of a console button lets you snap a free low-res digital picture, available for your (and anyone else's) viewing pleasure at Remote's Web site.
The lounge bills itself as an experiment in social interaction. The décor is consciously retro-futuristic, and Remote's publicity hyperbole is filled with spiel about techno-sociologists and the egalitarian redeployment of Big Brother equipment in a "telepresence environment."
For all that jargon-laden seriousness -- or perhaps because of it -- Remote is more about the fetish aspects and appearance of technology than actually using technology. Patrons chatting on cell phones drastically outnumber those using the bar's console-to-console phone system, and the units lack features no true geek would be without, like an instant messaging system. If you spy someone you like on the Webcams you can push a button and zap them a greeting, but if they respond you still have to chat them up face-to-face. Well, screen-to-screen.
"You agree that you have no expectation of privacy for any acts or statements on these premises," advises a sign just inside Remote's small lobby. The warning sets a suitably dramatic tone, which is what Remote is really about.
Its genesis is part of Silicon Alley's most notorious soap opera, the very public doings of tech millionaire Josh Harris, who created one more-or-less successful dot-com (Jupiter Media Metrix Inc.) and one pricey flop (Pseudo, a Net network that burned through an estimated US$35 million during its profitless six-year existence).
After Pseudo's demise, Harris switched tracks from entrepreneur to performance artist and wired his downtown loft with an extensive camera network to broadcast his every move on WeLiveInPublic.com. (The loft, rather infamously, did have Webcams in the bathrooms -- and the cats' litterbox.) The trio behind Remote, who do business as Controlled Entropy Ventures (CEV), developed and ran the technology underpinning WeLiveInPublic.com, which died after three months and a tell-all article newspaper article by Harris' suddenly-ex girlfriend. CEV redeployed its software and designs into Remote, which opened a year later. Franchises are in the works. While nothing is finalized yet, plans for Chicago and Las Vegas are under way, according to CEV partner Luke Vahle.
It's hard to see cool, plastic-y Remote becoming anyone's favorite neighborhood haunt, and it's too geeky to become a true scene venue for New York's fashionistas. Still, the drinks are cheap, the bar menu (version .90) intriguing -- octopus balls, anyone? -- and the atmosphere surprisingly friendly. Deciphering the consoles is an easy way to bond with nearby patrons.
And then there's the cameras. Voyeurism has its charms. As I head to the bar to settle my tab, I glance at the row of monitors overhead -- and catch the usually shy Fahmi and John sneaking a kiss. Had I been a bit quicker with the camera button, I might have even snagged a snapshot to prove it. Remote's online photo gallery may wreak havoc for those sneaking illicit liaisons, but it certainly offers excellent fodder for morning-after gossip.