The Story Behind Zaarly’s Blue Bottle Webcam

About a year and half ago, our Mint Plaza neighbor, Zaarly, decided to do what any sensible tech start-up would do when faced with a queue for morning coffee. They hacked it. How? A fire escape, a camera, and a simple live feed. We tracked down Zachary Kim, Zaarly’s director of engineering, to get the full scoop.

To be clear, Zaarly doesn’t exactly need a camera. “We could literally walk the ten feet to the window that overlooks the line, but we’re tech people, so we had to solve the problem in the most interesting way possible,” says Kim.

How? Tapping the guy who set up their wifi.

“Our IT guy, Travis Geary, actually ended up repurposing a camera he had for this. It’s pretty simple, really, just hooking it up to the fire escape.” 

The camera’s feed stayed internal for six or seven months, until friends and visitors to the office got wind of it and lobbied for public access. Zaarly complied.

“It took a minor hack to get it on the internet, and then it took off. Now we get a lot of tweets and Facebook posts about how much people love the Blue Bottle cam. It really resonates with people not to have to stand in line,” says Kim. 

If Kim had to stand in line, which he doesn’t, how long would he wait? 

“I’ve waited for twenty or thirty minutes before, when I had to, and it was totally worth it.” The entire office, some 20 people, order across the coffee gamut from soy lattés to macchiatos. But for Kim, there’s only room in his heart for one drink.

“The Nola. Oh god. It’s so good. The chicory you guys put in? It’s like crack,” he says.

For a place like Zaarly, though, just guessing at the patterns of crowds isn’t quite enough. When it comes to analyzing lines, data is king. 

“We’re actually thinking of adding a new feature to the camera, tacking on image recognition that can actually count on many people are in line, and report that to us.” Eventually, the computer can compile that data and feed the information to Zaarly, saving any of them that ten foot walk to the window. 

A camera like that can be a powerful tool, we know. And so we asked, any advice for folks new to the technology?

“Use it for good, not evil,” says Kim.