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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 March 2007, 16:14 GMT
Messing and mashing in Texas
Gareth Mitchell
BBC World Service's Digital Planet

Dorkbot at SXSW
Dorkbot are a group who do "strange things with electricity"
The noise was horrific. Two tall electrical coils charged up to thousands of volts gave off lurid pink sparks that arced and danced to the tunes of popular classical music pieces.

It was a fearsome synthesiser made of Tesla coils straight out of a school physics lab.

It is the kind of madness that typifies the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, held in the Texan capital, Austin.

It is best known for the music festival but for five days before the boys and girls in black lug their amps and attitude into town, Austin plays host to interactive and film festivals.

It is for the former that I was there, to produce a special edition of Digital Planet for the BBC World Service.

We were spolit for choice for guests, with around 5,000 bloggers, web pioneers and assorted new media types.

There were discussions on everything from "When JavaScript and Ajax go bad" to "Avatar psychology".

And, of course, there were those dancing, sparking Tesla coils - all part of the highly charged atmosphere at the Dorkbot bash, held on a lawn just outside the main venue on a balmy Texan spring night.

Even after the free beer had run dry, the party was still going strong.

Techno tune

Dorkbot is a global collective of people who "do strange things with electricity".

Self-proclaimed Dorkbot overlord David Nunes told me that his people were dedicated to dismantling whatever gadgets they could get their hands on and hacking them, mashing them up and fusing them into the most outlandish electronic crossbreeds possible.

David Cromer and Thereminbot
Thereminbot produces a "musical" warbling sound

It was fun, subversive and brilliant.

After a rasping, crackling medley of tunes from the Tesla synthesiser, we were treated to more musical entertainment.

This time from a hacker who demolished a couple of old Atari games consoles and a Commodore 64, combining their sound chips into a hybrid synth that pumps out some fine 80s retro electronica.

Outside the marquee, David Comer showed me his Thereminbot.

At its heart was a musical instrument that produces haunting warbling tunes as you wave your hands near its antenna.

Unlike the original 1920s Theremin that inspired it, this beast was built into a human-sized grey robot that plays through an electric guitar-style fuzz box. The sound was more prog rock than pre-war.

David was only 13 by the way. His Dad, Bob, who teaches technology at the local community college, also showed off his own robot.

It was knee high and looked like a quad bike covered in cables and connectors. It had its own wireless hub on-board and a camera that beamed live pictures to a nearby television monitor.

Digital Planet producer Peter Price and I kept a close eye on our recording equipment lest it be apprehended by Dorkbot's finest and hacked into the circuit boards of a Sinclair ZX81, combined with a broken dot-matrix printer and connected to Austin's town clock via Bluetooth.

Laptop hack

After we went to one of SXSW's many parties. We had heard talk of a laptop battle where electronic musicians were vying for tonal supremacy on their computers.

Gareth and the OLPC
The author gets his hands on the hundred dollar laptop

But on the way, in a bar, we bumped into a couple of folk we met at Dorkbot. One of them writes for hack publication Make magazine and had with him one of the first production models of the One Laptop per Child computer.

For a couple of years, MIT Media Lab boss Nicholas Negroponte and his philanthropic consortium have been vaunting their $100 laptop as a means of helping bridge the digital divide, bringing affordable computing to schoolchildren in the world's poorest countries.

Over a beer or two, we discussed the prospects of the machine solving the world's literacy problems.

Then, the hackers joked about taking it to bits at the earliest opportunity.

It took about five minutes to figure out how to open the computer and by the time we had ridiculed each other with snaps from the inbuilt camera, we realised that we had missed the duelling laptops across town.

Still, at SXSW, there was always another party.

You can hear Gareth's reports from SXSW interactive on Digital Planet on the BBC World Service by downloading the Digital Planet podcast

Download or subscribe to this programme's podcast


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