Production recreates nascent tech from late '60s

URBANA — Bill Gates and Steve Jobs brought personal computing into our lives — but they weren't the ones who pioneered the technology.

Much of the credit for that goes to Douglas Engelbart and others at the Stanford Research Institute.

There, during a live and filmed demonstration on Dec. 9, 1968, Engelbart and other researchers introduced an online system, a computer mouse, hypertext, dynamic file linking and shared-screen collaborations.

Mikel Rouse, a New York-based composer and performer, calls what's often referred to as the mother of all demos a remarkable piece of history.

It inspired him to create with composer-performer Ben Neill, also of New York, the music-theater piece "The Demo." The work-in-progress will have a full production, its first, at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Bob McGrath, who directs, likened "The Demo" to a music remix of Engelbart's demonstration. Images from the black-and-white 1968 footage serve as the structure for the new piece, coming forth and receding on screen.

"The Demo" also features electronic music by Rouse and Neill, who on stage respectively portray Engelbart and Bill English, one of the computer/Internet pioneer's key collaborators. Several local singers also will perform in "The Demo."

As part of the work, Neill also will play his "mutantrumpet," an electro-acoustic horn he described as an expanded hyper-trumpet. It has three bells, a slide and an electronic interface that enables him to control the software used in the piece.

"Part of the idea is that the performers do a lot of the work," McGrath said before a rehearsal at Krannert's Colwell Playhouse. "The performers trigger the technology. That's kind of a metathing — these inventions led to the technology we're using."

The technology will include a retrofitted keyboard with a musical keypad like the one Engelbart used in his famed demo. And there will be a crude mouse — his was made of wood and it rolled on wheels.

English provided a few artifacts for "The Demo" and might attend the show, according to McGrath. Engelbart died last summer at age 88; he was aware of the Rouse project, the director said.

Audience members at "The Demo" will be able to "interact," in a sense, with the technology as well. After the performance, smartphone users will be invited to go to the website thedemo.tv. Six University of Illinois senior majors in computer science developed the site as part of their Capstone Project, collaborating with eDream at the UI National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

The website — which will not introduce anything alien to mobile devices that access it — will feature behind-the-scenes images from "The Demo."

"We're motivating people to go to the website and if they keep it open there will be some surprises," said Donna Cox, director of eDream (Emerging Digital Research and Education in Arts Media).

She also said the technology developed for thedemo.tv will be re-used and customized for other community performances this spring at Krannert or the nearby Canopy Club.

As its first visiting research artist, Rouse collaborated with eDream on "The Demo." Researchers at eDream gave Rouse technical advice, helped him with editing, and provided video that "served as inspiration for the performance and how things were set up," Cox said.

She called "The Demo" a brilliant idea.

"When we first heard about it, which was two years ago, we said, 'Hey, NCSA is perfect for working on this project with you. We do demos all the time.' What technologists really do in a demo is a performance.

"Really, 'The Demo' is about dreaming forward and backward with the technology," she said.

If you go

What: "The Demo," a music-theater piece directed by Bob McGrath and co-created by Mikel Rouse and Ben Neill, based on the 1968 demonstration by Douglas Engelbart and others at the Stanford Research Institute of pioneering personal-computer technology

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Colwell Playhouse, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U

Tickets: $30 for adults; $25 for senior citizens; $15 for non-University of Illinois students; $10 for UI students and youths high school age and younger

Information: 333-6280, krannertcenter.com

Of note: After the performance there will be a "talkback" hosted by Krannert director Mike Ross and a reception at Stage 5 for the production team and performers

Running time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission but audience members are free to take a break and come and go while "The Demo" continues

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