CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- It was a Friday night with my fiancee, Tara, and our friends Laird and Juliette, hanging out in Harvard Square. We had just exited the Border Café - great Mexican food (try the margaritas!) - and had about an hour to blow before The Madness of King George (highly recommended) started at the theater down the street.
What to do? Go for coffee, sitting back sipping cappaccino, latté, or espresso? Maybe go online, check our email, see what's new on the Web, or interact with a little VR? Hey, why not do it all at the same time! Fortunately right next door to the café was Cybersmith, the latest step in the evolution of cyberspace, combining the two c's that keep all techno junkies going -- computers and coffee -- but in a public space instead of a basement apartment.
Upon entering the ultra-modern foyer to Cybersmith with its slogan "Building community with technology," it's clear that more money has been spent here than on your average coffee bar. The downstairs lobby with reception desk has more the feel of a luxurious fitness spa than a Bohemian hangout joint. Everything is clean and well decorated in a techno-minimalistic sort of way: a few computer screens showing the history of Pong (yes, the game), a few holograms, small halogen strip lights over the desk, and a rack of Cybersmith T-shirts. A woman wearing a red polo shirt with "Cybersmith" emblazoned over the left breast and the Cybersmith lightening bolt/arrow logo above, hands us all a brochure starting with a section entitled "How is Cybersmith a NEW retail concept?" She smiles and asks us if we have been in before, briefly details the services available, and directs us upstairs.
Upstairs is where everything is happening, and it takes a few minutes to take it all in. It's not that it's particularly large, it's just that there is a lot going on. Everywhere you look there are CRTs. On the tables, on the walls, on the ceiling; I look down half expecting to find some on the floor. In fact it's a while before I realize that the actual coffee bar part of this operation is standing only a few meters away from me.
We stop at the check-in desk to buy our "Cybercards." Without one of these the computers in this place are only so much glowing circuitry. The price scheme is pretty clear: 17.5 cents per minute, except for the VR machines which are $5 per "experience." They have just about anything you could want to do with a computer: CD-Rom, Internet, America Online, face morphing (which can be printed to t-shirts), and games. All of this is accessible through your little card which can either work as a debit card or be "open ended" and attached to your credit card account (Master Card or Visa). I opt not to get a card, wanting to be sure of what I am getting myself into first, but Laird plunks down the dollar purchase price for the Cybercard and his trusty plastic usury card so that he can play as long as possible.
My fiancee has made it across to the coffee bar called "Smitty's On-line Café," leaving me to peruse the many shelves of computer, science, and science fiction books. Lots of books. Too many books that I wish to purchase. Seeing the lust in my eyes, Tara comes back over and distracts me by asking what I want to drink. I walk back over with her and order a coffee, she orders a tea, and we both get these kind of coconut chocolate dipped things. Laird is long gone by now, having disappeared somewhere in the maelstrom of technology with his card in hand. It will be a while before he resurfaces. Juliette decides not to get anything and goes looking for him.
After weeding my way through the patrons I sit down at a table Tara has found; I place the items down around the screens and keyboards on the table and notice a sign on the computer in front of me reading "out of order." That would explain why no one was sitting there. After taking her tea, Tara introduces me to our table mate: Simone. Simone looks to be in her early twenties with dark curly hair and a friendly smile. She had apparently been chatting with Tara about a conversation she was having on America Online.
"He says he has a hard time meeting woman," she chuckles referring to her online correspondent, "I wonder why?"
Simone continues to type, occasionally sitting back and waiting for a response from her distant companion. At the same time she is doing this, however, she also continues her conversation with us. "This is great, I've only been coming here a week and I already know most of the staff," says Simone, who is as close as this place has to "a regular." (Cybersmith has only been open a couple of weeks) and appears as if she intends on being here a lot.
After a while I realize its getting late. Leaving Tara to finish her tea, I wander around to the other side of the bar to look for Laird and Juliette. I pass people playing games, looking at Web sites, mostly in pairs or groups, all enthralled with what they are doing. In the back there are two VR platforms. Lots of people are gathered around them looking up at TV screens showing the spectators what the person playing the game is seeing (only the player sees it in 3D, of course). I watch the woman in the VR machine, helmet donned, holding a controller in her right hand. She moves slowly like she is practicing Tai-chi movements. Then suddenly the crowd cries out as they spot a meany coming up from behind. The woman on the podium spins around and faces me, sees the monster and fires, blood and gore goes everywhere on the screen. I try not to take it personally.
I finally find Laird and Juliette. Laird is crouched intently over a large screen maneuvering through a maze of bad guys out to get him before he gets them. Eventually he is cut down in the prime of life. Japanese characters come up on the screen, no English.
"What do they say?" I ask looking over his shoulder knowing that Laird spent some time in Japan
"I have no idea, but it was really neat."
Juliette begins to pull on him; it's 9:20 and the movie starts at 9:30. We get back to the table and pick up Tara and our coats. Laird still has to get his credit card back and settle accounts, so I take that time to drool over some more books. There is a whole section just on the sociology of a computerized society. I wonder at this. Can any of these help me with my classes this semester? Are any of these books any good, or are they just knock-off books taking advantage of an ignorant public? There are just too many to pick from, so I give up and head downstairs with the rest of my group, past the smiling woman and back onto the streets of Cambridge.
Will Cybersmith catch on? Who can tell. It was nice if a bit pricey -- and it seemed a bit corporate. At one point I found out that $1 Million (U.S.) was spent putting this place together, and it shows. The brochures are slick, the atmosphere is seamlessly constructed, and the technology is pretty good. But will people go there? Will people pay to socialize not only through computers but around computers? It's hard to say what people will do, but it just might be that the wave of the future will be a CRT at every table. ¤
Cybersmith: Building community with technology
36 Church Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
Jason Teague is the Graphics Editor for Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine.
Copyright © 1995 by Jason Teague. All Rights Reserved.