BmoreSmart wants to add tech component to Artscape

Tech geeks might be more at home at a "Star Trek" convention, but this year they want to make their mark on Baltimore's Artscape festival.

A group of volunteer organizers filed a proposal Monday to add a technology exhibit to Artscape — complete with Web-based interactivity, gadgets and video gaming — with hopes of emulating the success of other events across the country that attract tech enthusiasts.

The organizers, part of a volunteer group called BmoreSmart, would call the technology component of the festival Betascape. Their proposal envisions a showcase that complements Artscape's current offerings of visual art and musical performances. They hope their efforts help put the city's festival on par with South by Southwest, the popular music, film and interactive media festival in Austin, Texas.

"The vision that we all have is to create a technology event that is on the national calendar of leading tech events," said Heather Sarkissian, founder of BmoreSmart and CEO of, a Baltimore-based mobile computing firm. "We envision a lot of demos, a lot of interaction."

Technology festivals and conferences are often attended by influential entrepreneurs and early adopters of technology who could make or break new Web services and gadgets., the microblogging service, made its first big splash at South by Southwest three years ago where it won an award and has since grown significantly in popularity.

Twitter's debut at South by Southwest "got credited for hitting a tipping point among geeks," said Hugh Forrest, director of South by Southwest's interactive component.

Some of the ideas for this year's Betascape in Baltimore include a 48-hour video-game development competition, during which programmers work for two days straight to build a game. Other ideas involve showing off the latest mobile computing devices for cars, or using Twitter and other social networking sites to generate flash mobs —spontaneous crowd gatherings — around Artscape.

If the group is successful with its Artscape proposal, it would be another sign of a growing cohesiveness among Baltimore's tech community, which has rallied in recent years to create several events and conferences for promoting entrepreneurs and innovative ideas. Local technology entrepreneurs also were instrumental in persuading the city to vie for the Google Fiber for Communities pilot project. About 1,100 communities are competing for an ultra-high-speed Internet network to be built by the Internet giant.

BmoreSmart pitched Betascape to the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, the nonprofit that produces Artscape each year. The event takes place in the center of the city, in the Bolton Hill and Station North neighborhoods. Organizers estimate it is the largest free arts festival in the country, with 350,000 visitors.

Artscape is one of the most popular annual events in Baltimore, and its economic impact is considerable. Last year, the festival cost $860,000 and yielded $26 million in art and food sales, taxes collected, hotel bookings and other revenue, according to a recent report from the promotion and arts office.

Randall Vega, director of cultural affairs for the office, said she invited BmoreSmart to submit a proposal because "technology is such a huge part of our lives, from the computer on our desk to cell phone in our pockets."

"There's a very strong element of art in technology from the standpoint of design," said Vega. "It only seems rational to include technology in our Artscape lineup."

Introducing a technology component also would fit with the desire of festival organizers to include new elements so that the festival feels different each year, Vega said.

"We definitely see technology as being a part of the art world, and therefore it deserves a place at the art table," Vega said. "We're experimenting."

The promotion and arts office plans to consider the proposal and evaluate how much it would be able to fund, Vega said. Volunteers connected to BmoreSmart would be under a tight deadline to arrange for technology events for this year's Artscape, scheduled for July 16-18.

Sarkissian said that Betascape also could offer technology demonstrations, do-it-yourself tutorials, robotics, guest speakers and parties. The group is soliciting ideas for Betascape from the general public at its Web site,

"We're going to make this happen, there's no doubt in my mind," Sarkissian said. "It's just so doable."

Forrest, the South by Southwest interactive director, said his festival introduced a technology component in 1994. For several years, the more popular musical fare helped finance the tech features, he said.

"Start small," Forrest advised BmoreSmart organizers. "Let the thing grow organically. Let it find its audience."

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