• The Flying Karamazov Brothers, demonstrating their juggling and comedy act in the Media Lab atrium, collaborated with Professor Neil Gershenfeld (seated at computer bank at back) and colleagues at the Media Lab to incorporate technology such as sonar tracking of the performers, programmable club displays and interactive computer vision and graphics.

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Media Lab teams up with Karamazovs

What happens when science, juggling, music and comedy collide? You get a show that takes 14 hours to set up.

Dubbed "Loonyverse" by the road crew, the Flying Karamazov Brothers' new juggling and comedy act, produced in collaboration with the MIT Media Lab, is really called L'Universe. On tour since May 2000, the show will be at the Wilbur Theater in Boston from February 6-11, after which the troupe leaves to tour Europe.

Claiming to use technology "never before exploited on the stage," the show incorporates sonar tracking of the performers, short- and long-range RF links, programmable club displays and interactive computer vision and graphics.

Here's a job you don't want: technology coordinator for the show, responsible for the onstage operation and coordination of hardware, software and video images. The job description might note that knowledge of C, Windows-based software and Macintosh video imaging systems is required; a direct line to the most influential technology gods is highly recommended.

Started in 1973 by a couple of friends at the University of California at Santa Cruz, the Flying Karamazov Brothers aren't brothers, don't fly and are not Russian. They are an award-winning troupe of sometimes changing performers who have appeared on Broadway and in smaller venues in the United States and in Europe. The company is now based near Seattle.

Known for mixing jokes and sight gags into a potpourri of flying pins and puns, the Karamazovs dispense tidbits such as, "There's only one way you can catch a sickle -- more than once"; "con brillo -- that's Spanish for 'with scouring pads'"; or "Andre, the beer of bottled champagnes." In addition to juggling "terror objects" such as flaming torches and meat cleavers, they play a selection of works on xylophone, drum and electronic helmet.

The Media Lab component of L'Universe -- led by Associate Professor Neil Gershenfeld; graduate students Matt Reynolds, Joey Richards, Benjamin Vigoda and Kelly Dobson; and visiting scientist Bernd Schoner -- equips the four performers and their juggling clubs to let them work together as a giant musical instrument.

Author of the best-selling books When Things Start To Think, The Nature of Mathematical Modeling and The Physics of Information Technology, Professor Gershenfeld leads the Physics and Media Group at the Media Lab and co-directs the Things That Think research consortium. His lab investigates the relationship between the content of information and its physical representation, from developing molecular computers (which led to the first experimental demonstration of a quantum computation), to smart furniture (seen in the Museum of Modern Art and used in automobile safety systems), to virtuosic musical instruments (including a cello for Yo-Yo Ma and the stage for the Flying Karamazov Brothers).

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 7, 2001.

Topics: Media Lab


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