The mother of all tech demos becomes an avant garde opera

31 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

1968 is when it all changed. 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. On December 9 that year, Douglas Engelbart, a computer scientist at Stanford Research Center, made a 90-minute video presentation that revolutionized the world of computers. 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.

Over the course of 90 minutes, Engelbart showed off for the first time a stream of new technologies that would shape computing for the next half-century: windows, hypertext, computer graphics, the mouse, video-conferencing, word processing, real-time collaborative editing and more. This week will see the world premiere of , a multimedia-heavy musical performance centering on Engelbart’s famous presentation, composed by Mikel Rouse and Ben Neill.

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. The debut performances will happen April 1 and 2 at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall, only a short walk away from the buildings where Engelbart and his colleagues developed their pioneering technologies as members of the Stanford Research Institute in the 1960s.

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. Ben Neill, playing fellow computer trailblazer Bill English, performs the Mutantrumpet, a super-instrument of Neill’s own design that he also uses to control lights and other elements in the show. 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. In Engelbart’s demo, Rouse saw as a sort of prototype of the form. “Even though he didn’t consider it a performance, it may have been one of the first times video had been used in a presentation of this kind.” In addition to honoring Engelbart’s contribution, Rouse hopes the show will prod people to consider their relationship with technology today. 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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