A Look Back at Expo ’74


Here is the way I think about it. Cycling ’74 is a software company. Developing software is our substantive contribution to mankind. We are not professional conference-givers. We are not O’Reilly. I was not born to give a smashing keynote address.

However, about a year ago, I decided that we should try to host a conference. I can’t even remember why now, other than it seemed like it might be an educational experience — if not necessarily for the attendees, at least for the company. We could do it as a kind of experiment, to see if we had any aptitude for conference-giving. Also, I had a clever name, and no one really advised us against doing it. (I have clever names for restaurants but *everyone* advises me never to open one.)

Last week, we put on our first conference. Now that Expo ’74 is history, I’ve been asked to share my thoughts about the experience.

Anything you do for the first time will be accompanied by feelings of anxiety. At first I thought no one would want to come. After all, other conferences have already happened at least once, and as a company, we had no experience putting anything more than a few parties. They were pretty great parties, but a three-day conference was another level of planning and furthermore, we had no “last year’s conference changed my life!” quotes we could use to promote the event. Sign-ups started out pretty slow, but as the deadline for discounted attendance approached, we had more people than we had ever imagined. At this point, my anxiety level actually increased since we had almost a hundred attendees. Would they be satisfied with anything less than a life-changing experience? My co-workers were anxious because they didn’t really know what kind of people were signing up. Would anyone have a good time? As it turns out, the people who signed up were a fantastic group. They were both interesting and interested in each other.

Attendees showing their work at the Science Fair. Photo by attendee John Manoogian III.

As I announced at the beginning of the Expo, one of the benefits of having an event devoted to Max is that for three days out of the year, we needn’t be embarrassed about talking about Max. We could safely explain how our patches work rather than worry about a crowd ultimately more interested in evaluating the musical or artistic quality of the results. On the second day, I witnessed a perfect example of this when, introducing one of her beautiful architectural projects, Dana Karwas told the audience, “Now here’s something we did using jit.gl.multiple.”

Yes, we had a few moments of artistic expression, but they felt spontaneous and were always accompanied by a display of a patcher on the screen. During Pamela Z‘s performance, we could see the changing names of her presets that provided a kind of internal commentary on the evolution of the song. I suspect that the presenters most attendees least expected to be shredding on guitar were Miller Puckette and Brad Garton, yet there they were (of course, it was not as simple as a “guitar” in either case). Miller even took requests from the audience to demonstrate presets in his amazing Pd guitar patch.

Obviously there are thousands of people we could have chosen to present their work, but we tried to come up with a selection of people that would simultaneously inspire the attendees and prevent them from drawing any conclusions about there being a “right” way to use the software. But there was one thread that emerged over the course of the three days: we all basically keep rewriting the same patch. This was eloquently confessed by Robert Henke, who provided a touching history of his quest for the ultimate step sequencer.

In addition to the presentations, Expo ’74 was intended to create opportunities for social interaction. The opening night, we hosted a party at our little office.

The Relationship Managers meet the attendees in their groups.

Chief organizer of the conference Lilli Hart offered to cater the party with her husband Bryan, who is a professional chef, and they put together a modular collection of three soups and accompaniments. Naturally, we decided on soup long before it became clear that the party would be held on one of the hottest days of the year. I also spent the day before the conference preparing dough for 200+ chocolate chip cookies, which Bryan kindly ended up baking in our office kitchen.

Attendee Jean-Francois enjoys a cookie while Marsha sets up her camera for video interviews on the roof.

We divided attendees into eight groups, each named after a different Max object. On the first day, I roped my San Francisco based co-workers into leading group field trips to various locations in the city, including the California Academy of Sciences, Balmy Alley, the Musée Mecanique, Treasure Island, and the Jejune Institute. Attendees collected data at each location and, on the final afternoon, worked as groups to create responses. The only two rules we gave them were that they had 75 minutes to work and that they couldn’t use any pre-existing patches. All of the resulting projects were charming and imaginative. There was a laptop “garden” featuring elements of Yerba Buena and the pinball machines at the Metreon, and a continuous procession by the group that visited the Cable Car Museum using a 200-foot-long rope traveling around the outside of the conference space.

Field trip photo by attendee Todd Thille.

The creativity on display at the science fair on Thursday night really blew me away. Attendees brought over 30 different projects to share, of all different sizes. I found the science fair could be enjoyed on two levels. Most obviously, there was the fun of learning about the projects from passionate creators working with a wide variety of materials, including rocks, cameras, Monomes, aluminum foil, Markov chains, and boiling water. But I was also affected by seeing all of this activity in a single space, and from my conversations with others attending the event, I wasn’t the only one.

Real-time EEG (brainwave) analysis at the Science Fair. Photo by attendee John Manoogian III.

Those are a few thoughts about our first attempt at presenting a conference. Based on comments from my co-workers, it seems that we feel it would be worthwhile to try to do this again someday. So, if you were not able to attend the first Expo ’74, you may soon get another opportunity.