In 1891, the Serbian-American scientist Nikola Tesla created one of his best-known inventions: the Tesla coil. He envisaged a world where his technology might be used to transfer electrical energy wirelessly through the air like lightning bolts. But Tesla probably never imagined that more than a century later, his device would be used by a group of self-confessed circus freaks to play classic sci-fi and video game theme tunes to crowds of stunned onlookers.
Of the many curiosities on show at Summer in Abu Dhabi, none are as odd as ArcAttack. They are a group of six "hardware hackers for hire" from Austin, Texas, whose act is based around two large "singing" Tesla coils - slightly reminiscent of patio heaters - that shoot out arcs of electricity of about 500,000 volts. By hooking the machines up to computers and keyboards, the group are able to manipulate the arcs to play sounds. The result sounds something like a Dalek singing karaoke.
"We were the first people to get a Tesla coil to produce sound in this fashion," says Joe DiPrima, one of the group's founding members. "We can create 10-foot musical lightning bolts and do a style of modulation that just never used to be possible." With a show that includes electronics, music and B-movie imagery, it's no surprise that ArcAttack have become a regular fixture on America's science fiction and fantasy convention circuit. They have also appeared at slightly hipper festivals such as Austin's music industry showcase South by Southwest and a number of European events. After videos of their shows began appearing on YouTube, they were booked for a six-week stint at Summer in Abu Dhabi as part of the event's Science and Technology Island.
Although ArcAttack's show features, among other things, grown men dancing around a stage to an electronic version of the Star Wars Imperial March, it is based on some pretty hard science. "I had the idea after seeing a Tesla coil in 2003," says DiPrima. "That one worked differently to what we do, but I grabbed the frequency knob and tried to play a little tune with it. A couple of years later, when I got our thing working, the first thing I did was hook up a keyboard to it."
The group's members may be prone to dropping scientific jargon and mathematical equations into conversation, but they are lightweights compared to the man who dreamt up their favourite toy. Tesla played a vital role in many of the most important scientific advancements in the fields of electricity and magnetism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He worked closely with Thomas Edison and was a key figure in the development of commercial electricity distribution systems. It was Tesla who won the so-called "war of the currents", leading the alternating current (AC) being the basis of the modern electrical system, rather than direct current (DC), as Edison favoured. But Tesla's wilder ideas led to him being ostracised by the scientific community, and he died alone and penniless in a hotel in New York in 1943.
Since his death, he has become a cult figure in and beyond the world of science. Among his highest profile posthumous accolades was a portrayal by David Bowie in the 2006 film The Prestige. "Tesla coils were originally a means of transferring energy through the air, but it ended up having problems," says DiPrima. "It's a very inefficient method of transferring energy and there's no way to meter it, so people would have been able to draw power without being charged for it. [The coils] just didn't get proper research or funding, so hobbyists and experimenters have pretty much kept them alive.
"I've known about them for years," he says. "I've been into electronics since I was five years old, when I held a soldering iron for the first time. My dad was a biomedical engineer, so it was in the family. I can't remember the first time I saw one, but I probably wasn't very old." After leaving high school, DiPrima took a job in one of the less glamorous fields of electronics: the television repair industry. But he eventually found himself working as an electronic engineer at Austin's University of Texas, where he still works between ArcAttack shows.
"I do multimedia and electronic design. Everything from programming micro-controllers to creating analogue circuits," he says. And it was in Austin, a city renowned for its artistic community, that DiPrima met his fellow founding member of ArcAttack, Oliver Greaves. Much like DiPrima, Greaves was the son of an electronics enthusiast. His verbal resume reads similarly and includes words like "electronic tinkerer" and "jack of all trades". Wearing a white lab coat (part of the group's onstage uniform) he talks about the circumstances under which the two met.
"I was sitting in a coffee shop in Austin babbling to a friend about robots, then this guy butted into the conversation about something and started telling me what would work and what wouldn't," Greaves laughs. "A week later Joe was at my house saying: 'Hey, you want to build a Tesla coil?'" With long hair and beards aplenty, the group look and sound like the cast of a 1990s slacker movie. The singing Tesla coils' preprogrammed repertoire includes songs targeted at the geeky masses, from the Mario Bros theme tune, to Doctor Who. The group have also managed to include their guitars into the show. But they are consummate professionals.
"The Tesla coils can be pretty dangerous if they are not operated correctly," says DiPrima. "But we set up the correct safety barriers and also have someone who constantly has his hand on the power switch looking over the area. "Worst-case scenario, someone might try to jump the fence. If you put your head in the arc you would burn yourself really bad, but it probably wouldn't be fatal - unless it scared you so bad that you have a heart attack," he says. Despite the Tesla coils' dramatic appearance and high voltage, the current is low, meaning that the risk of electric shock is smaller. They are more likely to cause burns than shocks.
Although the show is undoubtedly safe, the perceived possibility of danger is part of its appeal. And no part of the ArcAttack experience appears more hazardous than the Faraday suit trick. During the set, the group's frontman, Patrick "Parsec" Brown, a long-goateed former carnival worker, covers himself head-to-toe in chain mail before stepping into the buzzing arcs of energy. Instead of falling to the ground in a lifeless smoking heap, Parsec happily conducts the arcs with his body as the astonished faces of crowd members look on.
"Each Tesla coil can produce an arc of around 500,000 volts," says DiPrima. "The idea of the Faraday suit is that it covers the entire body, evening out the voltage potential across you. It doesn't matter if your voltage potential is zero volts or a billion volts, just as long as you're not completing the circuit. The only danger is if something crazy happened like the suit splitting." But it's not the dangers - real or otherwise - that earn the group's members the occasional questioning glance. It's the lifestyle. Spending one's weekends roaming the US with a lorry load of scientific equipment, to perform at Atlanta, Georgia's Dragon Con or Tampa Floriday's Metrocon, might not be every mother's dream for their sons.
"People used to think I was a bit crazy," says DiPrima. "But then they saw that this is starting to take off and now they have a bit more respect. When I was young, did I think I'd end up a circus freak? No, but hey, I kind of like it." Greaves has similar feelings about the group's unique appeal. "I feel like a little bit of an anachronism," he says. "[The show is] like something from the old World's Fairs where they unveil some wonderful new technology. I keep doing it because figuring out how to play music with a Tesla coil has never been done before. You do things because they are fun, but also because they are difficult."
To see ArcAttack in action, go to www.thenational.ae/video.