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Hearts of Dorkness
Finally, Technophiles Can Boot Up and Display Their Inner Nerd

By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 21, 2006

A few minutes ago she was Paras Kaul, an electronic artist. But right now she's "Brain Wave Chick," the alter ego she slips into while working on her art. She wears a blue headband with three electrodes that monitor brain waves. And she uses these brain waves to play a video game -- or, as she calls it, an "interactive brain wave visual analyzer system."

The game she plays, Crop Circle, projects onto a screen behind her. One of her players, a blue marble, bounces all over the screen and makes the noise "wee-bop!" The goal of the game is undefined.

Then again, everything is experimental for Dorkbot DC, a new club in town for "people doing strange things with electricity," or so the motto goes.

Kaul and about 20 others gathered for the fifth meeting earlier this month at Provisions Library, a resource center for activism and the arts.

"I think this is legitimately incredible," says 26-year-old Web developer Chris Jones about the Dorkbot meeting.

Dorkbot is a global organization that started in New York in 2000 and has grown to include more than 50 chapters all over the world. The Washington chapter started in June; newer chapters are popping up in South Africa, South Korea and Greece.

The Washington group attracts an eclectic bunch -- Web developers, academics, students and artists.

"Some of us identify as artists first, some as engineers," says Alberto Gaitán, a composer who helped start the Washington chapter. "We don't stay in the box. We're not afraid to experiment."

Douglas Repetto, founder of the original Dorkbot in New York, started the club to meet other people with an interest in electronic art. He wanted to create "an adult show-and-tell." His employer, the Computer Music Center at Columbia University, hosts the Web site Dorkbot.org and pays Repetto while he runs the club.

He chose the name Dorkbot to help keep the mood casual.

There are no résumé requirements to present work at Dorkbot, Repetto says. He loves it when someone well known presents on the same night as a student who has just learned computer programming.

"There are plenty of forums for serious presentations," he says. "If you're doing something at Dorkbot, you can't take yourself too seriously."

Every Dorkbot group creates its own meeting format. In Washington, two or three artists present their work, followed by question-and-answer sessions. Techie jargon flies.

"It seemed like a good, creative mix of people with a high level of technological understanding," says Kaul. "I didn't try to dumb it down."

A recent Dorkbot meeting featured a "USB Voodoo Doll," says Thomas Edwards, who also helped start the Washington chapter. The doll plugs into a computer and, when someone sticks pins in it, messages come up on the screen like, "Ouch! You hit my heart!"

Edwards presented a robot programmed to follow people around and dole out compliments such as, "I like the way you did your hair today." Its name? Sycophant.

"It was based on a friend who went to a party and followed girls around complimenting them," Edwards says. "I guess it worked for him."

Dorkbot chapters use various tactics to create a sense of community. Most groups have e-mail discussion groups.

There's an official Dorkbot T-shirt, which, of course, is high tech. The T-shirts are designed so that fragments of ink will rub off, leaving unique patterns on the shirt.

The London chapter, one of the largest, goes to lengths to establish camaraderie. Repetto says London held a Dorkbot summer camp last year in -- get this -- Dorking, England.

"Dorks rule the world right now," says Gaitán, from the Washington chapter. "It's the age of the dork."

Dorkbot DC meets at 7 p.m. Jan. 24 at Provisions Library, 1611 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free.http://dorkbotdc@dorkbot.org, 202-299-0460.

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