SAN FRANCISCO (03/22/2000) - No time to head down to the local pub for a brew?
All your pals out of town? Why not log in to beer.com and buy a new friend some suds, even from across the Atlantic?
Last week, Toronto-based Beer.com launched the StellaCam, which allows you to pick up the tab for a Stella Artois (a Belgian beer that originated in the 14th century) for patrons in three bars: Café Comm in Brussels, Belgium, Belgo Nieuw-York in New York, and The Shark Club in Vancouver, British Columbia. The tab adds up to $6.50 a beer, payable by credit card, and includes a 15-minute chat with the patron ($2 for chat only).
"One night over a beer we came up with the idea," says Rocco Rossi, president of Beer.com. "We have T1 connections in each bar, with video-streaming cams.
Site visitors can see a patron in each bar. If someone strikes their fancy, they can buy them a Stella Artois."
Patrons sign up on a waiting list, then sit in a designated chair within camera range. A printer at the counter spits out a coupon redeemable for a beer.
"We limit people to three beers or 30 minutes, whichever comes first," Rossi says. "We want them to have fun, but in moderation."
Beer.com claims the StellaCam "provides a live, interactive bar experience 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
But when I tried to log on, I got no virtual pub experience, only images of empty bars. In fact, things don't get started until the Belgo Nieuw-York starts serving at 6:00 p.m. EST, insists Rossi, and the clubs don't really get crowded until 10: 00 p.m. or later.
"There's not always a patron on video," Rossi says. "Later in the evening, you start seeing better interaction."
The Official Beer Cam Trial
I asked two friends to help test the StellaCam at the Belgo Nieuw-York. Here's what we found:
Even virtually, New York bartenders are surly. Our remote server (no technical reference intended) complained that the bar could make more money on a chair sans beer cam. I couldn't find a way to tip the bartender through the Web-based payment interface, which reduced the overall level of customer service.
It's hard to eat Belgian fries, drink a beer, and chat at the same time.
You need a recent version of the Windows Media Player to view the video stream.
Otherwise you can view only static JPEGs, which can be updated by refreshing the page in your browser. I had version 6.0, which shipped with Windows 98, but needed to download version 6.4 from the Microsoft site (see download link at right).
They don't really kick you out after 30 minutes.
Despite my initial cynicism regarding the utility of the BeerCam, when I logged on, my friend was already drinking a free beer. A friendly StellaCam user named Natasha from Toronto had bought a round. The generous user paid for two more chat sessions, and bought another beer.
"Seems like the folks at home get the short end of the stick," says Manhattanite Jessie Hensley. "They're paying for the beers and they get booted out after 15 minutes...But it's great to be the one at the bar when the coupon comes shooting out."