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When Sci-Fi Came True

Engelbart’s 1968 cutting-edge computer demo inspires a multimedia vision.

Photo: Valerie Oliveiro

The press release calls The Demo a multimedia “technology infused” stage work. But Wiley Hausam, Stanford Live’s executive director, ups the ante when he talks about its “hallucinogenic” impact, with a score that’s “sort of rock ’n’ roll with a little Miles Davis.”

The production, which makes its formal premiere on April 1 at Bing Concert Hall, with a repeat performance on April 2, is essentially an avant-garde rumination on one of the most visionary demonstrations in history: computer mouse inventor Douglas Engelbart’s 1968 presentation on a digital future that included hyperlinks and integrated text and graphics. As tech forecaster Paul Saffo, JD ’80, told Stanford 16 years ago, the implications were so profound and eye-opening, “It was like a UFO landing on the White House lawn.”

The Demo draws on film of that presentation while layering in reenactments and electronica, staged with jumbo-sized video projections of flashing images and filaments of color. Whatever the description—theatricalized multimedia, anyone?—“you just need to give yourself over to it,” says Hausam.

The production originated with composer-performers Ben Neill and Mikel Rouse, who developed the project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, supported there by the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and the eDream Institute. When Hausam heard about it, he said, “Yes, we have to do this. This is us.”

Engelbart, who died in 2013, was an engineer at the Stanford Research Institute (before it became independent of the university) when he made his famed presentation. And a collection in his name at Stanford Libraries includes the notebook in which he sketched the idea that culminated in the mouse. The Demo, says Rouse, asks some of the questions that arise from living in the future that Engelbart sketched in a different way, more than 46 years ago.

“Our idea,” says Rouse, “has been to re-create it in such a way that we could reflect on where we’ve come in all these years—and on where tech is going.”

The co-creators of The Demo each portray famed technology pioneers: Mikel Rouse performs as Douglas Engelbart, Ben Neill as Engelbart colleague William English, MA ’62.

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