A computer scientist demonstrated a virtual lava lamp — physically manipulating the colorful blobs on the screen by stretching them with his fingers. The crowd listened intently as he extolled the wonders of "multi-touch interaction research."
No one was heading for the door.
The gathering was the monthly meeting of "Dorkbot," a loose forum for the exchange of creative technological ideas that is developing a cult following around the world.
"These events are very good to bring out the inner geek," said Jeff Han, a computer scientist at New York University who gave the lava lamp presentation.
The "Dorkbot" meetings were launched about five years ago by Douglas Repetto, 35, now the director of Columbia University's Computer Music Center.
When Repetto, an artist with a technology bent, came to New York in 2000 to teach at Columbia, he had few friends in the city. So he sent out an e-mail calling for a meeting of "people doing strange things with electricity." The phrase became the forum's motto.
About seven people showed up to the first meeting. Repetto presented a complex project involving the early computer game "Pong," hacked joysticks and computer programs "that talk to one another."
In an age of rapid scientific invention, the forum apparently tapped a latent desire for a venue to exhibit technological creativity for its own sake.
"There is a need to have a casual way of talking about what you are interested in without pressure to succeed," says Repetto. "It's a virus that our society has that the only one reason to do things is because you are going to get famous."
The meetings, which typically involve three presentations by people from diverse backgrounds — from engineers and computer scientists to artists and musicians — have gradually grown and spread to about 50 cities on five continents.
"There are so many people working in isolation doing really interesting things technologically. I think Dorkbot is a great way to share it," said one of the recent presenters, John Huntington, a professor at New York City College of Technology's Department of Entertainment Technology.
Repetto believes the forum's appeal has to do with its informality and the broad inclusiveness expressed in its motto.
"I just said, 'If you are doing something weird, let's get together and show it,"' he explained.
Han said his lava-lamp research involves expanding touch-screen technology so that users can manipulate many points of the screen simultaneously. He says it has promising commercial applications, but it's also pretty cool — as evidenced by the enthusiastic reaction the audience gave as he moved the lava-lamp blobs.
Other Dorkbot projects are less functional. Repetto has finished a project called "foal table." The idea originated in a request from a friend working on a theater production to design a table that transformed into a horse. Repetto watched videos of foals being born and carefully calibrated a mechanical table to make it walk in the awkward, stumbling manner of newborn horses.
"What it's supposed to do is ridiculous because it's a table and there is no reason for it to be walking," Repetto said.
The idea is therefore perfectly Dorkbot — a name that Repetto says is meant to appeal to people who like to stand back and experience awe in technology and creativity.
"The spirit is, it's wonderful to be in the world and creating things," he says. "We should be celebrating the fact that people are doing weird and inconsequential things that are still interesting."
By Desmond Butler