Two trailers full of wires, circuits, and screens sit beside a tiny blue lake in the scrubby southern California hills. This summer camp about 50 miles from Santa Barbara has raked in more attention than any other in the country this year. What Apple Computer was to the stock market, Computer Camp Inc. is to parents and their summer-camping progeny.
Some 80 campers ditched their shoes outside the trailers here last summer when this was the only full-fledged computer camp around. But this year 300 campers will come through. And next year Computer Camp is aiming for seven camps at sites around the country , and looking to open more overseas the year after.
Last year the Wall Street Journal, CBS News, and Leonard Nimoy's "In Search Of . . ." were here. This year the "Today" show, Time magazine, U.S. News & World Report, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek Video, and television and print journalists from several other organizations have been here. Two screenwriters even came up recently to ask permission to use the Computer Camp concept in a script.
The concept is this: For $795, the young and footloose can spend two weeks having fun and learning to talk to computers.
In the dry and dusty heat here, 10- to 15-year-olds swim and mess around and then take off their shoes (computers are sensitive to dust) for at least three hours a day to work and play on microcomputers lent by Atari -- getting cued in to what they'll need in the school and office of the future.
It's an idea that tapped into something both parents and kids are after. In an electronic future, these kids will be among the insiders.
And if these kids are any indication, the insiders in the computer age will be mostly boys and the children of affluent parents. Relatively few girls are visible wandering the camp or at lunch in the lodge; only 9 to 12 enroll in each session of 77. And camp staff observe that the campers tend to come overwhelmingly from upscale families. For instance, one staffer noted that the sons of the presidents of Union Oil Europe and Union Oil Asia were both in his cabin.
Still, computer literacy is spreading. There is even a good chance next year that Computer Camp will have have sessions for children as young as 6, using LOGO, a simple language developed for children by Seymour Papert of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. LOGO develops what Dr. Papert believes to be an innate mathematical sense.
Already Computer CAmp's founder, Denison Bollay, is running a camp in London this summer. A Connecticut computer camp which has also garnered some national attention was formed by Mr. Bollay's former partner.
At a table in the lodge overhanging Zaca Lake, four campers from Canada and Hawaii sit around talking after lunch. None of them have a computer at home. They all expect to get one soon, but came here to learn about them first.
Brian Irwin, who flew down from Vancouver, B.C., with two friends, read about the camp in the New York Times. He was enthusiastic about the idea, and so was his father, who wants to buy a small computer that Brian can help teach him how to use.
"It's the best camp I've been to," Brian sums up, "because it's not just a free-for-all." It has the usual activities of a camp, he explains, and the added dimension of learning about computers -- something he and his friends here point out as very important. they get as much as seven hours a day of computer time, although only three are in formal classes.
He doesn't just get an edge in school. "You can get a job just like that," he snaps his fingers, "if you know about computers" after graduating from a university.
These articulate young Canadians hope that there is a camp in Puget Sound next year so they can come back without flying so far.
The campers come in all levels and start where they need to. About half of those in recent sessions had previous experience on computers. Many have their own at home. And many, if not most, of those who don't will be getting them soon.
They learn BASIC; PASCAL, a more advanced electronic tongue; and even computer electronics and assembly languages for the aficionados.
The campers introduce "Dr. Sly" as he comes by the table, the nickname derived from Steve Inness's initials. Not the usual camp counselor, Inness is a 21-year-old, self-educated research engineer who designs microprocessor-controlled mobile telephones for America West Corporation in Redding, Calif. He is an electronics instructor here at the camp.
Inness is not interested in going to college. "Engineers have to keep up anyway," he says. "Everything I could have learned five years ago is essentially useless," because the forefront of computer science moves ahead so rapidly. Accordingly, he gets about a pound of information a day in the mail.
Many of the instructors are computer science majors and graduates from the University of California at Santa Barbara, like Denison Bollay himself. Others are peer advisers, advanced students in the campers' own age group, such as Shahrokh Ghodsi of Goleta, Calif., who is now between 8th and 10th Grades in school, skipping 9th.
About half the campers here are self-motivated and enthusiastic about the machines, notes Robert Reali, an instructor who's a student at UC Santa Barbara. The others appear to be here as much because parents are interested.
But even the kids who don't show much interest in computers when they come here get caught up in it, observes camper Brian Irwin, and begin to write their own programs and make their own games. "It's fun."
For this kind of booming business, that's the bottom line.