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Mixing genius, art and goofy gadgets

L.A. event draws tech, art luminaries to discuss living in an information-rich future.

LOS ANGELES--Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and his fiancee are being married by the Rev. Rick Warren, pastor and author of the best-selling book in U.S. history. Cellist Yo Yo Ma, accompanied by MIT Media Lab Professor Michael Hawley on the piano, is playing a wedding march behind them.

This wasn't supposed to happen. At least it wasn't planned this way. They're in the middle of the Entertainment Gathering conference in the Hollywood hills on Friday, having decided on the spur of the moment to exchange public vows in between speeches by the likes of architect Frank Gehry and filmmaker Jeffrey Katzenberg.

The three-day event's organizer, Richard Saul Wurman, is overseeing the ceremony with an ecstatic smile bordering on tearful. The audience in the crowded Skirball Center auditorium--technologists, artists and businesspeople, for the most part--clap enthusiastically as the couple exchanges a ring and a watch. ("A traditional exchange of timepieces," Nye quips beforehand, explaining that they hadn't planned this).

"I can't even believe that just happened," Wurman says, and then turns away to introduce his next guest.


Unexpected, yes. But Nye's impromptu wedding was wholly in the spirit of the unconventional, boundary-ignoring discussion that characterized Wurman's gathering, the successor to his long-running series of Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conferences.

Wurman, a 70-year-old architect, author and conference organizer is an impresario who creates events akin to the salons of Gertrude Stein on a larger--and at $4,000 a head, far more expensive--scale. They are peopled with creative, thoughtful people, many of them Wurman's own friends, given free rein to talk about their intellectual passions of the moment, whatever those may be.

All sessions are presided over by Wurman himself, sitting comfortably on stage in a padded red executive office chair, a thick scarf wound always around his neck, never more than a moment away from interrupting speakers or tearing up at the memory of some shared experience.

This gathering's ostensible theme was entertainment and the drive to "make entertainment informative." In practice, it was a demonstration of how modern specializations--3D animation, world-class concert music, evolutionary biology, architecture and blogging--reveal their underlying similarities in the light of the information age.

Many of the attendees were technologists showing off cutting-edge research or products, often aimed at changing the way people interact with their computers and with information itself.

G-Speak founder John Underkoffler showed off his company's data gloves, an interface to a computer like the gloves Tom Cruise wore in the movie "Minority Report" (on which Underkoffler served as a technology adviser.) With a flick of his wrist, he flew through a picture of Los Angeles projected on a computer screen above him, manipulating data with both hands at once.

The founders of Applied Minds, a top engineering and design firm that works closely with government agencies, showed off a coffee-table-like computer screen that people could stand around, manipulating data via touch. Their latest version includes a morphing, flexible screen that can distort into the three-dimensional surface of a mountainous topographical map, a movie's dreamlike special effect brought to life.

The designers asserted that people need better ways to work more directly with data, as reliance on computer analysis (or even Google searches) become a part of our thought processes.

"We're getting to the point in science where we can't just think with our minds anymore; we have to have this visualization," said Danny Hillis, an Applied Minds co-founder who earlier helped pioneer the idea of parallel computing. "The thoughts of the future are not so much going to be human thoughts, but symbiotic thoughts of this technology combined with people."

Human genome pioneer J. Craig Venter talked about organizing the organic information of DNA, telling the audience that he believed his team is now just a few months away from creating the first artificial micro-organism, with synthetic chromosomes pieced together in a lab. Once that step is taken, the biotechnology field will be blown open even wider than it is today, he said.

"This is software that creates its own hardware," Ventner said. "That's what life is. That's how we all work."

Democratic chaos
Many of the speakers also highlighted the way that the Internet and other new technologies are leveling the traditional barriers between creators and consumers, providers and those provided-for.

"The Sims" creator Will Wright and Microsoft Xbox team leader J Allard each predicted that players will take on a growing role in helping to create the content of the game worlds around them. Technorati Vice President Peter Hirshberg outlined the blogging world's newly gained power to help undermine major media and political figures and top brands such as Sony.

Inventor Dean Kamen told his story of creating small, efficient devices that could create enough electric power to provide light for a small village by burning cow dung, and extract more than 1,000 liters of clean water a day from any water source at all. By setting up local entrepreneurs to manage these devices in small villages with contaminated water sources, huge amounts of disease and misery could be avoided, he said.

However, the United Nations organizations he has approached have turned him down, preferring their large-scale, top-down approaches, he said, still clearly bitter.

"There is something worse than people who have no idea," Kamen said. "It's people who have a bad idea."

But for all the gee-whiz discussions of the power of new technologies, many of the speakers had mixed visions of its overall effects.

Warren, the megachurch pastor and author of the best-selling "The Purpose Driven Life," told the story of his unexpected rise to the top of the all-time best-seller list, and asked the gadget-toting audience to remember the value of service to others over the call of materialism.

New Yorker journalist Ken Auletta drew a connection between the public's growing lack of trust in the media and the news business' growing tendency to focus on ephemeral stories such as a runaway bride. Reporters need to slow down and tell stories that are truthful and genuinely important, rather than simply seek to entertain, he said.

Applied Minds' other co-founder, Brian Ferren, dismissed ideas that society had reached anything like a point of stability in its interaction with information. His warning about design principles applied equally to the broader reach of technology's influence on society.

"People in technology are so obsessed with getting the right answer, they forget to ask the right question," Ferren said.

No summary of the three days could adequately encapsulate an event in which Yo Yo Ma and Herbie Hancock periodically took out their instruments to play, where TV biologist Jeff Corwin introduced the crowd to a boa constrictor so large that it took five people to carry it, where architects Frank Gehry and Moshe Safdie mused on the nature of beauty.

Even these deeper moments were leavened by a "Gadget-off," in which audience members were quickly shown USB drives shaped like sushi, the latest slim phones from Japan and a homemade "hacker robot" that wheeled around the event sniffing out Wi-Fi signals, and then showing attendees their unprotected computer password on a big screen.

"The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening may have expressed attendees' sentiments best during the closing moments, dropping to his knees in front of Wurman.

"I know you've said you'll never do another one of these," Groening said. "But if you change your mind, I don't think any of us will hold it against you."