BOB GARFIELD: TV aims to please. It seduces us with sexy images. It makes no demands. It sounds like the perfect date. And that's the premise behind a new hotspot in lower Manhattan called Remote Lounge. We sent OTM's Jad Abumrad to check it out and what he found wasn't just a bar but a laboratory for the ongoing experiment in human socialization in our media-saturated age.
JAD ABUMRAD: You enter a narrow front room lined with a hundred video screens which show a hundred different people or parts of people -- big, goofy 20-something smiles, piercings, and lots of chests and bottoms. Remote Lounge is the brain child of Bob Stratton, a technology wizard and one of the three owners. He explains how it all works.
BOB STRATTON: This is a cocktail console here, and essentially what we have here is a monitor on the left and two cameras on top of it--
JAD ABUMRAD: The images are gathered from cameras atop 40 Jetson's Light [sp?] consoles sprinkled throughout the bar's two rooms. These are where people sit. Each console has its own TV screen and a variety of oversized buttons.
BOB STRATTON: And you can essentially rifle through any of the 40 live feeds in the bar while you sit here, so right now we're looking at this wom--at this woman here, and we don't know where she is.
JAD ABUMRAD: I find out later that the blonde woman with the very earnest smile was at the opposite end of the bar and that her name is Jenny. Had he wanted to pursue the relationship, Bob could have spoken to her on the console's built-in phone or hit the drink button to have a waitress bring her a beverage. As we watch, Jenny's image jerks around spasmodically which, I've learned, is not a bug. Rather it is evidence of social competition. Several other consoles in the bar are watching Jenny too and competing for control over the cameras on top of her console.
BOB STRATTON: See what I mean? [SHOUTING, CHEERS]
JAD ABUMRAD: For example -- a few consoles over a group of co-workers -- all guys -- have tuned in Jenny and are trying to train the unruly camera on her upper torso.
JAD ABUMRAD: Okay - what just happened. This is radio. You're going to have to do your best to explain [...?...] our listeners.
HOWARD: We sent a message and she tried to respond in a rather playful, exhibitionist kind of way.
JAD ABUMRAD: You're understating it.
JAD ABUMRAD: That's Howard. He makes video contact with Jenny and gestures for her to pick up her console phone.
HOWARD: Hello, can you hear me? Hm! You seem-- you seemed to be rather responsive to our-- to the camera rather. Where are you located? The guy with the microphone's going to come over and chat with you now, okay?
JENNY: Look, tell him I look 10 times better in person than I do on the screen.
JAD ABUMRAD: I will as soon as I go back there.
JENNY: Ah! Yes! Somebody else is trying to chat me right now.
JAD ABUMRAD: In a video soaked world like Remote Lounge, there are only two types of people -- the viewers and the performers. Jenny is definitely in the second group. As we're talking, Howard's face disappears from her screen and a moment later shows up in the flesh to introduce himself -- but, as "Allen."
MAN: I'm Allen.
WOMAN: Nice to meet you.
MAN: Nice to meet you.
WOMAN: So like you've had me on camera for, what, the past half an hour? What?
MAN: It wasn't so much myself as it was my colleagues next to me; they could control the other camera as well.
WOMAN: They weren't always on my face; that's the problem.
JAD ABUMRAD: How does that make you feel?
WOMAN: Tad bit self-conscious, but you know I've had a couple of drinks, so--
JAD ABUMRAD: In a normal bar, only the bold few approach good-looking strangers. Here normal guys like Howard, A.K.A. Allen, do it without a problem. To Leo Fernekes who's a partner in the bar, this is a testament to the power of tv-mediated socializing. You can take on a new identity; many people here do. You can be intimate with someone while maintaining your privacy and there is no fear of rejection or commitment. The solution to that is simply to change the channel.
LEO FERNEKES: The people are able to use the video system as a safety shield that allows them to be more outrageous, more outgoing. You're just able to act out your fantasies through a TV screen.
JAD ABUMRAD: But oftentimes at Remote the fantasy screen interaction awkwardly collides with the real life one, especially if you're, say, trying to strike up a conversation with a virtual someone who turns out to be at the console right next to you. This happens to Howard's friend Phil. P
JAD ABUMRAD: The problem is, Phil can't get his phone to work. P
HIL: Hello?? Is it working? I don't know.
JAD ABUMRAD: Phil, like most here, prefers to socialize in baby steps. First, the video; then a phone conversation. In this case, since he couldn't figure out the phone, he did skip right to step 3 and walked the 2 feet to meet a woman who gave her name as Liba. P
HIL: Sorry. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
LIBA: Liba's an alias.
JAD ABUMRAD: Tuned in on Liba's screen is - you guessed it - Jenny.
LIBA: We were just watching this guy, you know, touching his girlfriend -- it's all fun and it's nice--
JAD ABUMRAD: But for Liba, Jenny's private moment with the guy she just met splayed indiscriminately on a hundred video screens makes her uneasy. The line between sexy and scary isn't always clear, and at Remote Lounge, she says, it seems to cross over itself.
WOMAN: Like we're not in control of the camera, and we're not wat-- necessarily able to watch ourselves, so it's like, I, I don't feel that comfortable.
JAD ABUMRAD: At Remote Lounge, control is checked at the door, literally. A disclaimer reads: by entering you hereby relinquish your right to privacy, to publicity and to bring claim against the company. Obviously this doesn't matter to the people here. The chance to be a video star, even on so small a scale, is worth the price which amounts to personal privacy and a couple of drinks, plus tip. For On the Media, this is Jad Abumrad. [THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers with Sean Landis; engineered by George Edwards and Dylan Keefe and edited -- by Brooke. We had help from Jim Colgan. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large, Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Capello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. So can I-- buy you a drink?