The Dorkbots are among us

On an underground cultural phenomenon

Nick Woolley 10 January 2006

Woolley relaxing in his Edinburgh local

The venue looked like an abandoned door-knob factory…

Editor’s note: Nick Woolley is one of the founders and organizers of SciFri, a science fringe festival that will run concurrently for the first time this year with the Edinburgh International Science Festival in April. The SciFri team spent most of 2005 poking around the UK for interesting acts that might be suitable for their fringe event, which is meant to be entertaining, enjoyable, unconventional and inspiring – in other words, not ‘straight science’, but a vibrant mix of science-related music, art, stunts and comedy, with the ultimate aim of attracting an audience who would not normally consider attending a conventional science festival. This challenging brief led them to many intriguing nooks and crannies in the British science scene. Here, Nick describes one such adventure:

The motto of Dorkbot, an international nexus of people who share their ideas in a friendly, informal setting, is ‘People doing strange things with electricity’, which sounded weird and science-y enough to take a look. So I recently attended one of their London meetings held in State 51, Shoreditch.

Very ‘Shoreditch’ – the venue looked like one of those abandoned door-knob factories which have plastic signs alluding to violence by Alsatian should you try to enter. The building was hidden behind rusty corrugated iron sheets and barbed wire, the wide gate had a flaking sign saying ‘State 51’, and the letterbox appeared to have disintegrated. Apart from the sign, the only evidence that I'd come to the right place were a couple of people loitering outside, one of whom I recognised as a friend whom I'd arranged to meet here.

After trying the wrong door, I found one that opened. Inside it still looked like a derelict factory or art studio, but there were more people, and evidence that it was still in use – lots of boxes of empty lager bottles, a few A4 notices taped to the walls, and in the room beyond I could see what looked like the chassis of a partially assembled vehicle surrounded by an array of machinery and tools. Someone's work in progress, I assumed.

The loiterers were mostly fairly ordinary twenty-somethings, with a demographic tending toward the eccentric end of the spectrum, but by no means exclusively. People were milling around in a large, dark and previously empty space in which someone had erected a screen and a projector, some rows of old chairs and sofas, and a school table at the front supporting a ramshackle collection of laptops and cables. A domain name in blocky faux-Soviet-style letters was stencilled on white-washed brick wall.

The event was slow to start. Eventually a person stepped out of the audience and shyly introduced the first speaker, who was lanky and technical-looking and had a strong European accent I couldn't place. Nor could I make out all that he said. He was brandishing a gaming joypad with a camera and a microphone, all wireless. As he fiddled with it, the gist of his explanation was that a program he'd written took the camera image and wrapped it onto a wire-frame sphere his laptop projected onto the screen. Twiddling the knobs made the image swell and bulge – it would quiver with background noise, then suddenly bristle into a spiky ball or sinuously morph into a tube or a wine glass. One setting mapped the image intensity to the sphere's radius, making bright bulging patches scroll around on the surface as the camera panned.

Because I couldn't quite follow his talk, I missed what the program was for exactly, but I think it may have been for live music performances. It certainly didn't seem easy to control – attempts by the audience to manipulate the joypad usually required intervention from the speaker to return it to a useable state. More work in progress, I imagine.

The second speaker was an employee of Philips R&D labs in Eindhoven. He was a clearer speaker but just had a slideshow, with no actual gadgets on-hand, but he did describe a lot of gadgets he had made – wearable mp3 players, heart monitors in sports tops for women, and several electronic chandeliers made of LEDs or crystals, such as a helical one which could receive SMS messages, and a sheet of crystal balls suspended from the ceiling which displayed whatever was drawn on a PDA screen.

The third speaker was someone I'd seen before – he'd been a member of the Laptop Jams collective which had a gig at Edinburgh's Triptych festival this year. He demonstrated his googlewhacking program that he'd been using at the Triptych – it searched for images on Google which matched a selection of keywords, and pasted them on the display in a slow, random sequence. He explained that it was meant to be accompanied with a mix of US internet radio stations, and that these were meant to generate serendipitous coincidences when they worked well, but he'd not brought his mixer.

Next he described a musical experiment where a full-size steam engine in a room was wired up to a midi sequencer, and played us a promotional video of bronze spinning flywheels, steam and governors, and people standing around twiddling with hardware, looking thoughtful. Oddly, I don't think we got to hear the music the steam engine generated – the soundtrack seemed to be something classical with a voice-over. I couldn't help wondering if perhaps that was because the music ends up like tuneless bleeping, rather like the midi hamsters. It was a nice idea, though.

Finally, there were a handful of 'opendork' presentations – basically an open-mike session for spontaneous participants. The latter two ‘presentations’ were just announcements really ("come to the hack-the-world convention"), but the first was a quite interesting demonstration by an employee of OpenMap.

OpenMap have bought several months’ worth of courier GPS data from agencies in London. Normally the data is discarded, there is so much, and no one has found a use for them yet. He played them back in a demonstration movie, black lines on white, the tracks fading into the background as they aged. They looked to me like a time-lapse film of a woodworm infestation. The worms tended to stick to a recognisable street-map of central London, mostly Soho, but some would take shortcuts across parks, down alleys, and bizarrely, across the river where no bridges or tunnels are actually present.

Whilst he talked, he left the demonstration running and pointed out a quiet period on 7 July 2005, after the tube bombings. It was hard for me to spot, because someone's head was in the way of the time scale. The whole project looked like it had some potential uses, but again it was work in progress – during the talk he appealed for anyone with ideas for what to do with this data to get in touch.

After the talks I spoke briefly to one of the two organisers. I think I met someone called Alex. Dorkbot has been running for three years, he told me, and this is their 30th meeting. The organisers don't organise anything more than the meetings – although possibly he was playing down his role. When they founded Dorkbot/London he and his co-organiser spammed lots of other mailing lists to generate interest, and it seems to have had a fairly steady interest ever since – participants usually spontaneously ask to appear or turn up, and attendance has always been about 50 each meeting.

Anyway, having taken the opportunity to quiz him and tell him briefly about out festival, I slid off for a Bangladeshi curry in Brick Lane, suitably enlightened about the Dorkbot phenomenon and curious to see more in the future.