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."

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