Page last updated at 10:27 GMT, Tuesday, 30 June 2009 11:27 UK

Tech Know: The power and the dorky

By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website

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A 25,000 volt music machine, a mind game and a spooky rabbit are among the inventions Ellie Gibson discovers at Dorkbot.

Before there were makers there were dorks, many of whom went to Dorkbot meetings to watch people do strange things with electricity.

The Dorkbot movement was started by New York artist Douglas Repetto but they have grown far beyond the original idea of "dorks in New York" that he conceived. Now the world is dotted with Dorkbot chapters and the regular London gathering is one of the busiest.

Open source culture is not something you buy, it's about something you do
Ele Carpenter

Held at Limehouse town hall the monthly meetings showcase the ingenuity of its many members and the eclectic nature of the strange things that can be done with electricity.

Dorkbot 62 took place in mid-June and had on the bill high voltage music, creepy robots and open source embroidery.

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Dorkbot organiser Peter Brownell explains the ethos behind the group

Strange reaction

Sarah Angliss, one of the regulars at Dorkbot, is a fan of the maker movement and in particular some of the tools, such as the Arduino microcontroller, that have been created to help tinkerers get things up and working.

"I've been through the purist stage and it's painful," she said.

"I remember buying accelerometers five years ago when I was at the University of Sussex doing a robotics course," she said. "They were £150 each and came on surface-mounted chips and were really hard to work with."

To some using the Arduino may seem an affront but for Ms Angliss it makes it far easier to get on with the interesting stuff.

Clare close-up, S Angliss
Clara 2.0 is a strange and creepy robot

Ms Angliss has employed an Arduino microcontroller to turn a doll into an on-stage helper for her Spacedog musical group. The controller means Clara 2.0 can move her head and arms and joins in playing the theremin, albeit very badly, when Spacedog perform.

Reactions to Clara 2.0 vary, said Ms Angliss, many people are unsettled when the blank-eyed doll begins to move and play an instrument. The doll was chosen, she said, because of its strange appearance.

"I'm really into things that look sweet like toys but look at them another way and there's something deeply creepy about them," she said.

Also featured at Dorkbot 62 was Mike Harrison, a veteran of the meetings, who had been experimenting with ways to use simple circuits, neon bulbs and high voltages to produce music.

The climax of the show was Mr Harrison using 20-25,000 volts of power to make wind chimes, hard disk platters and the spark-o-phone to produce a cacophonic, crackling musical symphony that pretty much brought the audience to its feet.

Code and cloth

While there is one wing of the maker movement who like their microcontrollers, high voltages and circuit diagrams another wing of the community has a softer edge - literally in many cases because it involves textiles.

Ele Carpenter has spent years investigating the links between technology on the one hand and more traditional crafts on the other. The end result of this investigation is a quilt made by makers and crafters that translates the HTML colour codes, 216 of them, into a collective patchwork.

This Open Source Embroidery project, as Ms Carpenter dubbed it, was not without its technical hurdles. Tricky to get over was the fact that HTML colours are defined by mixing different amounts of red, green and blue. By contrast but fabrics are printed with inks created by mixing different amounts of cyan, magenta, yellow and black.

The project brought together coders and crafters to find out how to get over these hurdles and explore what they have in common. She really was not sure how crafters, who know yarns and fabrics, would get on well with coders, who know HTML and programming.

"I was interested in how ideas of participation and networking being made clear by new media and the internet have been going on for ages in craft networks," said Ms Carpenter.

HTML Patchwork in progress, Ele Carpenter
Makers and crafters in Banff, Sheffield and Newcastle made patches

The HTML Patchwork is part of a larger Open Source Embroidery exhibition Ms Carpenter is curating and has taken to Umea in Sweden and San Francisco.

On the website built to record the work that went into creating the quilt, Ms Carpenter has created a wiki where the people that produced each patch could record how they did it. Some just left their name and others, such as Julian Priest who produced patch green #009933, left detailed information about what inspired them to get involved and how their patch travelled to Ms Carpenter.

"It was about bringing patch workers and people using HTML code together to discuss the shared ethics of their practice," she said.

The ways of working in open source and developer communities was far closer to the practices in craft collectives and groups than she had suspected.

"It was a great way to make tangible and physical these debates about networks, social networks and communication networks," she said.

As Ms Carpenter said: "Open source culture is not something you buy, it's about something you do."

And the Dorkbot folks do it very well indeed.



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