Greatest computer demo in history debuts as an opera at Stanford this week

31 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Experience tech’s greatest-ever demo as an opera.

On December 9, 1968, a man named Douglas Engelbart gave a presentation on new computing technologies that is still considered one of the most epic demos in history. Back in 1968, when Tim Cook was barely 8 years old, an engineer named Doug Engelbart put on a computer demonstration at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco.

Over the course of 90 minutes, Engelbart demonstrated things like videoconferencing, hyperlinks, networked collaboration, digital text editing, and even the mouse. On that day, in an underground convention center in the heart of San Francisco, Doug Engelbart gave The Mother Of All Demos, introducing the world to an astonishing slew of technologies including word processing, video conferencing, windows, links, and the humble mouse. While this moment is still celebrated in tech circles, Mikel Rouse and Ben Neill, composers and performers, stumbled across a video of the event a few years ago.

Not only did his technology eventually find its way into the Mac, but his human-first view of computing would also become key to Apple’s philosophy. Watching the video inspired them to create, “The Demo,” an opera that pays tribute to Engelbart. “The Demo” debuts on April 1 and 2 at the Bing Auditorium at Stanford University. The pair describe the show as “a technologically-infused music theater piece, a new form of hybrid performance.” Engelbart actually made the presentation over a video feed, and in the show, the men re-create that dynamic by beaming the performers’ faces onto a giant video screen on the stage. “Rouse portrays Engelbart in The Demo, while Neill plays his technical assistant, William English. The performance is anchored by the video of Engelbart’s original demonstration, which Rouse samples and splices with other footage using a similar computer setup to the one Engelbart introduced in ’68. Remember Whole Earth Catalog, the magazine Steve Jobs famously described as “Google in paperback form” and “one of the bibles of my generation” during his 2005 commencement address at Stanford?

The opera juxtaposes the demo with new audio and video technologies –- it includes a mix of re-enactments, electronic music, live vocal and computerized voice processing. The idea, as one contributor to the production evocatively put it, is to “dream Engelbart forwards and backwards.” Rouse and Neill have been working on the show since 2012, when Neill first discovered Engelbart’s video while researching another project.

Last year, France’s Opéra de Lyon staged a multimedia opera combining the story of Steve Jobs with that of Henry V, taken from Shakespeare’s 1599 play. While most computer scientists continue to focus on advanced computers or artificial intelligence, Engelbart’s work was focused on building tools that would augment human intellect. At the time, though an avid technology user, Rouse never heard Engelbart’s name. “I knew it didn’t really start with Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, but at the same time, I didn’t know exactly where it came from,” he says. “I was like everybody else.” Immediately, though, Rouse felt a connection to Engelbart’s visionary performance. The performance will take place at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall this week, in close proximity to the spot where it all began with Engelbart and his team. Engelbart, who died in 2013, was in many ways ignored by the industry that emerged in the decades following his famous demo, and like other pioneers, he often voiced his frustration with the course it took. “Our goal, by paying homage to the ’68 demo and showing these new technologies, is to get people to reflect,” Rouse says. “It would be really interesting if people walked out of the show and thought about how they use technology, and if they’re really reaping the benefits of what this amazing moment in time had to offer.”

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