Before venturing into Madison's nightlife nine years ago as a UW-Madison student, Justin Karter and a friend considered where to start among the city's many clubs geared toward the college-age crowd.
The choices were as plentiful as options on a drink menu. Karter's friend considered their options. "Wouldn't it be cool," he said, "to see the bar scene before we went out?"
The idea stuck in Karter's mind through his 20s, and he kept mentioning it to his tech-whiz brother, Gabe, who finally issued an ultimatum: Create the site or stop talking about it.
That prompted Karter, now 30, to form MadCityBarHop.com, which features live streaming video from eight Downtown bars and nightclubs. Two more places will be added this fall. Although the site has been up for 18 months, Karter kept honing the quality. The first webcam was placed in the Church Key.
"At that time, it was a still image, sending an image out every five seconds," Karter said. "If it lost the Internet signal, it wouldn't kick itself back on."
Now MadCityBarHop.com uses $500 cameras, offering continuous motion and a quality picture despite little light in some clubs. Placed in a high corner at each location, the webcams feature a fascinating glimpse of Madison's nightlife.
The images are sharp, but not sharp enough to see faces, Karter said. It's also a stationary camera. "The purpose is definitely to show where folks are at," Karter said.
There also is no sound, just streaming video - none of which is saved. Bar owners enjoy the free publicity, and next to the streaming video are specials listed for that bar.
"It's fun for the customers," said Jim Luedtke of Stadium Bar. "They can hop online and see what's going on in a bar and make their decisions (about) where they want to go a little bit easier."
Karter has never seen a fight online, but he said he has seen "some horrible dancing" during one club's karaoke night.
MadCityBarHop.com has received a few thousand unique visitors in the last year with word-of-mouth promotion. Karter said the site's voyeuristic aspect wears off quickly.
"The point is not to be intrusive," he said. "You're getting a bird's-eye view, but it's hard to identify a person." Luedtke said he worried about customer privacy at first, but that concern has eased.
"That was our biggest fear when we started doing this," Luedtke said.
The popular campus-area hangout Kollege Klub was one of the first places to sign up. Jordan Meier, Kollege Klub general manager, said it gives the club more exposure, and he liked the idea when Karter approached him a year ago. "We've had very positive feedback from customers," Meier said.
Not every Downtown bar wants to participate. One place, for instance, feared images of, say, a husband cheating on his spouse. Working from his West Side apartment, Karter said he is still operating on loans, but he sees profit potential if breweries and beverage distributors advertise.
Aside from his brother's technical help, he's a one-man operation. So what has Karter learned about his clientele's nightlife trends?
"At 10:30 or 11 p.m., you start to see the bars fill up. Then they're shoulder-to-shoulder until bar time ends," he said. "You see crowds earlier, but that late-night crowd happens on Wednesdays to Saturdays."
While staying aware of the late-night bar scene, Karter isn't usually a part of it. He does, however, work late hours: "Sometimes," he said, "I wake up at 1 a.m. to check on the site."