High-Tech Theater: Mikel Rouse (right) re-creates Douglas Engelbart’s famous introduction of the computer mouse in 1968. Photo: Valerie Oliveiro
In 1968, at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, Douglas Engelbart blew an audience away by showcasing a set of computing technologies then under development at the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) in Menlo Park, Calif. His demonstration was the first time the wider computing community had seen a mouse, word processing, dynamic links, shared-screen collaboration, and many other elements of what is now considered modern computing.
This April, in Stanford University’s Bing Conference Hall, Stanford Live presented the world premiere of The Demo, a multimedia theatrical performance. The Demo intersperses video of Engelbart’s original demo with a variety of other videos, still images, abstract lighting effects, live and recorded music, a chorus of half a dozen people, and actors portraying Engelbart and Bill English. (English managed the operations behind the scenes during Engelbart’s original demo.)
But while a crowd of longtime Silicon Valley innovators was happy to have an occasion to gather together and honor a pioneering moment, this time the show left the audience less than wowed. In fact, the real-life English, who was a guest of honor for opening night, got the most enthusiastic applause of the evening.
It started out strong—with a video of Engelbart on a central screen and Mikel Rouse (who cowrote the show with Ben Neill) playing the role of Engelbart, lip-synching and mimicking Engelbart’s hand and body motions. A driving techno beat joined in, giving an energy to the video beyond Engelbart’s calm, steady delivery. But the music, with lyrics based on lines of computer code and phrases that appeared onscreen in the original demo (like “word word word word word,” “hardware design hardware design,” and “apples bananas carrots soup”) soon became repetitive, and the constantly changing images and light patterns that were at first fascinating eventually became exhausting.
As one audience member put it during a postshow talkback, it was “long, really long.” And I had to agree. In fact, my companion felt she’d gotten the gist of it by intermission and skipped the second half.
The length, Neill says, was an intentional attempt to replicate the original 100-minute demo; at 90 minutes, this performance was actually a little shorter. The steady chanting of a choir of voices—some live, some prerecorded—was intended to emphasize Engelbart’s somewhat hypnotic delivery, a dreamy quality that Neill says attracted him to the video of the original presentation. He had also found it fascinating that Engelbart’s demo was very much a performance and, perhaps, the first computer event to be so theatrical.
Neill explains that the intent of this piece of theater was not to give a narrative history of Engelbart’s work—although it does bring in chunks of text and images from his life before the demo and the progress of technology after it. Instead, his aim was to echo the original demo by demonstrating an advanced system of networked technology.
And in that aspect, it was a success. The computer music, the strange “mutantrumpet”—an electrified combination of three trumpets and a trombone—the light shows, and the video projections on screens covering the walls and ceiling of the hall were perfectly synced with the live performers. Rouse’s fingers flying on a chorded keypad, an exact replica of the one Engelbart used but here configured as a musical instrument digital interface, or MIDI, was the most fascinating part of the live performance; for a long time I thought he was simply keeping time with the music, but I was awed when I figured out that he was actually controlling many of the effects.
The piece was commissioned and developed by the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and the eDream Institute, both at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and it was developed during a number of residencies and workshops. The creators admitted that it was very much a work in progress, so it’s likely to evolve before it comes to the stage again.
This article originally appeared in print as “A Man and His Mouse.”
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 30 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.