BLACK ROCK CITY — One of the neatest things I have seen in the self-expressive miasma that is Burning Man, the countercultural arts festival here in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, has been The Orb Swarm, a group of spherical robots designed to roll around the playa and interact with participants with lights, motion and sound. Imagine this: You're deeply intoxicated on a substance of your choosing, wandering around in the dark, when suddenly you're nudged by a two-and-a-half-foot high aluminum balls twittering at you and changing color. Yeah. You're tripping over balls, and the balls are tripping you.
The Orb Swarm's builders are a group of San Franciscan mad scientists who sprang up as a sort of offshoot of The Flaming Lotus Girls, a fire arts group best known for their gigantic interactive fire sculptures of snakes, constellations and phoenixes. Do not let the hippie name fool you: These people are not only hardcore, they know what they are doing. The Lotus group's name comes from its first project, which was — let's guess, children! — a flaming lotus.
The new group's work is a complex robotics project with some pretty deep electronics. The orbs were designed and built by a committee loosely headed by Jonathan Foote and Michael Prados, both Flaming Lotus Girls. (Before you ask, no, you don't have to be female to be a Flaming Lotus Girl. We don't know how that works either.)
The Swarm's Orbs move with counterweights inside them, shifting their center of gravity to make them roll. Driving them is a trip. Instead of straightforward steering, the driver gently suggests where they might like the Orb to go, and then hopes for the best. This makes for a great fallback position when — oh, let's be hypothetical — a driver accidentally rams an orb into the delicate little shins of a particularly obnoxious frat boy and his Bud Light-swilling buddies. We just hate when that happens.
Anyhow, the Orbs are really good at night, and the creators have assured us that there is in no way any sort of underlying hippie spirituality associated with this art piece. Hell, they are even a little squeamish calling it an art piece, they are just a bunch of gearheads and techies who really, really like the desert.