Google I/O After Hours: Robot bartenders, augmented reality and Billy Idol

I/O's big party is one of the weirdest social scenes out there.

Despite being generally great people with scintillating social skills and lots of interesting things to say, technology reporters unaccountably don't get invited to a lot of parties. I can't understand why.

So on the odd occasion that we do get an invite, you can bet we’ll show up, more or less regardless of the precise nature of the event. It was in this “hey, it’s a party” spirit that I headed back to the Moscone Center Wednesday night for Google’s storied After Hours party.

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It’s difficult to describe After Hours briefly. As you might expect, it’s very different than the usual tech convention bash, which is generally a shop-talk-fest thrown by one of the bigger vendors at a given show. Nor is it much like your average evening out in an urban area, given that there are no sports on TV and you’re not paying $6 for a beer.

The best description I can come up with is that After Hours is kind of like what I imagine a big, swanky club opening must be like, populated almost exclusively with people who never, ever go to big, swanky clubs, like me. Picture a vast, aircraft-hangar-sized room. Picture a crowd of at least a couple thousand, heavily (though not exclusively) white and male. Picture low lights and loud music. Picture a bunch of weird, technology-focused circus sideshows dotting the room. Now have a drink and eat a miniature chicken pot pie. That’s After Hours.

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Down goes FrazierBot 5000! Down goes FrazierBot 5000!

It is, as you can probably deduce, a pretty weird place. This year’s installment featured techno DJ Steve Aoki and, for some reason, Billy Idol as the main stage entertainment. There was a setup where you could manipulate a giant robotic hand via a special glove.

There was also a makeshift ring where you and a teammate could take on two other people in a robot boxing contest – robots were a big deal at the event. Given that the controls were made up of a series of levers, each working a single joint, bouts featured a lot of awkward flailing.

But the biggest attraction – aside from the music, that is – was the robotic bar setup. An MIT project (surprise) backed by Bacardi and Coca-Cola, the so-called Makr Shakr consistently drew a big crowd. Essentially, it’s a set of three robotic arms that shakes, pours, muddles, mixes and presumably throws out unruly drunks, though I didn’t actually see it do that last part. That’s impressive enough, really, but the truly wild part is on the back end – you sign into a mobile app, dream up a cocktail, and your order is added to the queue. It’s also shared socially and tracked within an inch of its life, with analytics displayed on a big monitor behind the bar and individual users’ consumption monitored.

Google also provided beer and vast trays of munchies like soft pretzels, chicken fingers, and the aforementioned tiny pot pies. Lines were enormous early in the evening, but thinned out as time went by. It was an oddly asocial crowd – it seemed like everyone was mostly just there to get the free stuff and check out the entertainment, rather than to socialize. I suppose that’s kind of the nature of the beast at this kind of party.

But it’s quite the experience, all in all, and it must be said that Google really pulls out all the stops – no surprise for a company that dished out a pricey Chromebook Pixel to every attendee this year. So if you like huge crowds of nerds, live Billy Idol performances and robots, this is the party for you.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

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