Computers: Cybernaut replays love game on the Net: Tom Wilkie meets a 'geek' comedian running a computer cafe to complement his one-man show in Edinburgh

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The Independent Online
FOR THOSE who want a new artistic experience at this year's Edinburgh festival, a 'virtual theatre' will be available on-line. And those seeking a venue in which to discuss their aethestic reactions can sip coffee in front of computer screens at Scotland's first cyber-cafe.

In the real world, the Pleasance Theatre Attic is the unlikely venue for a technological tale of unrequited passion. A self-styled techno-geek, Dan O'Brien, tells the story of how he tried to win the love of Alison Bunney via computer and modem - over the Internet.

Mr O'Brien is unusual in that he is a former hacker who can be genuinely funny and interesting when talking about computers and computing. In conjunction with his one-man comedy, he will be opening a cyber-cafe in the Pleasance courtyard from 20 August. During the afternoons, Mr O'Brien will hold open house where people can come and log on to the Internet and talk to the world, with the benefit of his expertise.

In this 'community centre for cybernauts', as he describes it, visitors will also be able to consult the Festival Fringe programme on-line and write their own reviews of what they have seen. Discussions are under way with a Scottish newspaper to enable its reviews of festival events to be e-mailed to the cyber-cafe before publication.

A text-based virtual-reality version of Mr O'Brien's one-man show, Caught in the Net, will also be available. The plot is partly autobiographical.

'It's all about me growing up in the sad Eighties. I was a hacker at 12 or 13 and I was trying to win the love of Alison Bunney over the Net.' But Alison was a 'Goth' - an early 1980s youth-culture tribe whose distinctive features were black clothes and white make-up. The plot lets Mr O'Brien talk about all the tribes on the Internet: 'People with an interest in Star Trek who thought they were sad losers, and then discovered there were thousands of others like them'.

At this point in our long-distance interview, the telephone started behaving oddly - another caller was trying to connect and was being held on the 'call waiting' system. The impresario of the cyber-cafe confessed in anguished tones: 'I never know how to deal with this.' He wrestled with the technology, and the line went quiet. Then he came back on, stunned at his BT on-line prowess: 'That's the first time I've understood how this works.'

Mr O'Brien, 25, is the same age as the Internet itself. 'We both started in the summer of '69 - it's an awful parallel which I draw in the show.'

Without wishing to give away too much of the plot, boy does eventually meet girl in the real as opposed to the virtual world. 'I felt odd, having Alison Bunney, my computer and modem in the same room. It was like having the wife and your ex-wife in the room together. But soon, I thought I knew more about computers than social interaction, so I packed it in, read books, got into Vorticist poetry, went to university and did a very sad arts degree.

'All my ex-friends who were spotty teenage geeks are now spotty millionaires,' he remarked ruefully. 'Caught in the Net is my attempt to regain credibility.' Theatre technology has not yet switched on to the computer age, so the play itself is distinctly low-tech.

Mr O'Brien's laments about this on the Net led to Pipex, a company which provides 'gateways' into the Net, to sponsor the setting up of the cyber-cafe. These, invevitably, originated in San Francisco, where they are an immensely popular next step on from bookshops with cafes. In Europe, a cyber-cafe has been set up in Amsterdam.

Mr O'Brien is modest about the limitations of his set-up in Edinburgh, warning that only four or five machines will be available.

Britain's first 'full-scale' cyber-cafe is due to open in London soon, run by Ivan Pope and Heath Bunting. Pending full financial backing, and a suitable premises, the two electronic entrepreneurs will operate a bulletin board and hope to set up a 'voice mailbox' system where people can call in and leave messages, listen to others, and even listen to music.

Dan O'Brien and his Edinburgh cyber-cafe can be contacted on Danny@tse. cityscape. co. uk - Heath Bunting and the London project on Heath@cybercafe. org

(Photograph omitted)

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