Turning the Internet on its Ear

Thomas Dolby's Euphonious Headspace

Thomas Dolby
photograph by George Lange

Fourteen years after playing the adorably disheveled and bespectacled lab jockey of his 1983 music video "She Blinded Me With Science," Thomas Dolby has indeed become the mad scientist of his own fantasy. And though we haven't heard him on the radio in years, this icon of the MTV generation is still making noise. Rest assured, Dolby is not attempting to rehash his pop stardom, but he does intend to shake up both the music industry and the Internet with his new pursuit. More than a decade after helping to invent the music video and create an audience for electronic music, the soft-spoken British New Wave legend is finding himself on pop culture's cutting edge... again.

It seems we have not heard from Dolby lately because he has been locked away in deepest Silicon Valley as president and CEO of Headspace Inc., a company busy creating a world of sound for the Web, CDROMs, and Virtual Reality. Headspace is a laboratory focused on the essentially nonexistent field of multimedia sound technology, and the lab has given birth this year to several new advances which Dolby hopes will revolutionize both computerized entertainment and the time-honored drudgery of being a working musician. Among these groundbreaking new technologies are: Beatnik -- an interactive audio system, Rich Music Format (RMF) -- a new music file format which can also use all the existing music formats such as MIDI and wav, and the Audio Virtual Reality Engine (AVRe) -- Headspace's own proprietary technology which allows the user to have an interactive, real time soundtrack to his multimedia or websurfing experience.

And these new infobahn technologies are just around the corner. Both Netscape Navigator and WebTV have employed Headspace to bring sound to the experience of surfing the Web to each of their browsers. Not just the kind of sound which takes 10 minutes to download and 30 seconds to play, but a continuous real time soundtrack on the Internet. Dolby also hopes that his new technologies will usher in a new era of music publishing which circumvents record companies altogether by allowing musicians to post their new music on the Web with superior sound quality. That's a pretty tall order for one guy to take on, but Dolby has always been about trailblazing new creative territories.

Dolby, who is headed to town as the keynote speaker for the SXSW Multimedia/Interactive Festival, spoke with us via phone about his Headspace -- past, present and future.

Austin Chronicle: It's seems to me that in many ways you've done a lot of reinventing.

Thomas Dolby: Well, I think replenishing rather than reinventing. Because my aim has not been to keep reinventing my music and my name as a sort of saleable commodity. It's been more a case of exploring associations with different musicians and with different media.

AC: I have read that it was difficult for you to choose between creative fields -- artist, writer, musician. How did musician initially win out and, secondly, do you feel that multimedia is finally allowing you to delve into all the various creative fields at once?

TD: Music won out initially because music -- although it's immensely hard for a lot people to make a living doing music -- has the lowest barrier to entry out of all of the arts. You can become very popular playing clubs or playing in the subway or whatever, without having to overcome that hurdle of finding a record deal. If you're an actor without an agent or a painter without a gallery then it's very hard to get noticed, because you have this additional hurdle to overcome. Do I feel that multimedia has allowed me to explore different fields? Yes, undoubtedly -- running my own website (http://www.tdolby.com/) has allowed me to indulge in all those different skills. And it brings me closer to my audience. If I'm able to get my music out over my website I'm able to think just about my audience and not about the A&R man or the record store owner.

AC: Did you have any training in computers and technology or are you entirely self-taught?

TD: I pretty much taught myself. I'm not a very disciplined person and any kind of training is hard for me to deal with. I never worked with software programmers until recently. I used to use only existing software. But going back to the very beginning there weren't personal computers and there wasn't any software to make use of. So a lot of what I used came from ingenuity. My first drum machine was a light console which I trained to turn the drums on and off. I think in a way since I've begun working with programmers it's changed again because now I'm pretty much making my own software. I'm more immersed directly in low-level software now than ever before.

AC: To what degree are you involved in the nuts and bolts end of things at Headspace?

TD: I don't write the code myself, but I'm involved in the design of the software and the testing to see if it's useful and appropriate creatively.

AC: How did the company get started and, beyond your webpage's description of you as a "figurehead," what is your role there?

TD: I've always been curious to try out different media. That's why I produced other artists, played keyboards for them, wrote with them, did film scores, a TV commercial or two, etc. In the Nineties I felt drawn to new technologies like Virtual Reality, CD-ROMs, etc. But I was shocked by the lack of tools and techniques for doing non-linear audio -- all the tools available were for making CDs. So as I did more and more work-for-hire in these areas, Mary Coller [Vice President of Headspace] and I decided to form a company, up the volume, and begin to develop some tools to do a better job. The company grew to 15 people, and now our main lines of business are licensing the technologies we've created.

AC: Explain, for the average websurfer or CD-ROM enthusiast, what the advent of Beatnik, RMF, and AVRe will mean to their experience of the medium.

TD: It's kind of comparable to the advent of talkies to the movies. A whole new level of experience opened up when sound was integrated. Sound on the Internet has been somewhat akin to having a live musician playing at a silent film. It's not the same as having a soundtrack which goes along with the action and a professional level of sound editing performed on the sound content. Audio professionals working on TV or whatever have gotten very, very good over the years at sweetening the production through the use of sound. When you are dealing with a real time interactive experience, you don't have the luxury of the post-production process. So what this software does is put the post-production process in a piece of software that runs over real time.

AC: I understand that, among other things, Beatnik will allow us to e-mail sound?

TD: Yes, you could very simply drag and drop an e-mail sound file. But that would have to be an application built on a platform. There's no low-level code written to make that happen. There needs to be some of this groundwork laid. The only way to achieve this is to sell the concept to some of the most powerful companies in the computer industry, like Apple or Sun or IBM. That is a very daunting task because sound has not been very important to those guys in the past.

A.C.: I assume, then, that there are other applications of Beatnik?

TD: Yes. Instead of using music and sound as wallpaper behind the webpage, Beatnik actually derives the use of sound from the input the user makes on the webpage. As you click on icons or links, you are actually generating a realtime soundtrack as you go.

A.C.: And Rich Music Format (RMF) is a tool which Beatnik utilizes?

TD: RMF files are what Beatnik plays. It can also play MIDI and other formats, but RMF is what it can do the most damage with. It's an umbrella for existing file formats. What it adds to conventional capabilities is number one -- interactivity, number two -- optimized file size, number three -- a level of security for the composer or the publisher which will prevent people from tampering with the file or reusing it elsewhere, and number four -- custom sounds. A lot of musicians working today don't work with sounds on a synthesizer. RMF allows you to use compact files working with your own samples.

AC: And AVRe will create a virtual reality (VR) experience based on sound?

TD: AVRe is pretty much embraced by RMF at this point. The ultimate illustration of what I'm talking about is a true VR world where there really is no story line provided. Just a sort of simulation of a universe where you create the story as you go. I think in a situation like that anything is possible. True VR such as writers like William Gibson have alluded to. We've seen some examples of low-res VR, and we've seen some examples of high-res VR, but where you're moving around on tram lines -- I'm talking about a high-res VR with full capability of motion -- that's something I think we can all imagine. When this becomes possible, the role of sound becomes an interesting issue. Up to a point, when you're talking about a simulation of real life then we know what that needs to sound like. But, the ultimate fiction requires ultimate music enhancement, and that's something that interests me. In an ideal world I would be there with an orchestra, I would be there to conduct every time the user went through the VR experience. It's like an artificial life question: What aspects of the human mind can you replicate with a computer? It's kind of the eternal Frankenstein question.

AC: Does Headspace have competitors?

TD: Well, we do so many things. We're a kind of one-stop shop for audio -- "your sound department!" We license and integrate our technologies, we provide consulting and support services, and we compose music and do sound design. We have different competitors in each area, but none that cover all the bases. I guess in technology terms it's people like RealAudio, Crescendo, Yamaha MIDplug, and so on. In composition it's maybe The Fat Man (though he's a friend!) and other game music gurus. We have extensive music libraries, and there we're competitive with a few other library companies, although our libraries are in RMF format which is way superior to any other format.

AC: What sort of panels will you be participating in at SXSW and what demonstrations do you plan to bring with you?

TD: I'm doing the keynote address at SXSW [Multimedia]. I want to talk about the possibilities for a whole new business model for musicians that results from technological advances on the Internet. For a number of decades, the ways to make a living as a musician have been severely constrained by the music industry oligopoly. Suddenly this is about to be turned on its head. It's not hard to envision a time when a musician gets paid a few digital cents every time a user enjoys his/her song. The transaction is a direct one, like when a subway commuter drops a coin in a busker's guitar box. How can musicians best prepare for this, and what will be the role of the record company if it comes to be?

AC: Well, speaking of the music biz, I'm going to switch gears here because I can't resist the opportunity to bring up your music career. "She Blinded Me With Science" was my favorite song when it came out. It was one of the first music videos to really catch on and certainly is still one of the most memorable, at least to people in my age group who were teenagers at the time. It must be something you're very proud of.

TD: I certainly am, it was a surprise success for me, I never really viewed myself as a mainstream artist, but I think that all the ducks were in a row for me that time. And everybody was talking about the British invasion and about music videos and MTV had just gone into major cities around the states. Radio stations were following MTV's format and prior to the video getting aired I hadn't really had any radio play over here. And so everything sort of came together. I had a hit song and a memorable video and the name and image and everything sort of came together. But it was never my intention, really, to manufacture a hit like that. And so people often ask me if I'm disappointed that some of my more serious work hasn't achieved the same commercial success and I think if anything the opposite is true.

AC: Is there a grain of truth about your personality in the mad scientist character you play in that video?

TD: Yeah, absolutely. When you see me working in the studio, I'm very like that. I'm running around to different machines. Sparks fly. And that's when I'm at my most, you know... dangerous.

AC: Which career has been the most challenging and which has best suited your personality?

TD: Well, I think they're both challenging in different ways. I look for stimulation from the challenges I face. I think in a lot of ways making records has become less challenging over the years. A lot of the technologies I've helped evolve have sort of come down to street level and that's gratifying to see, but it's sort of less challenging.

I guess Headspace is now a challenge to me in the same way that making records once was. It's sort of like a puzzle to me and that's something I get real gratification out of.

AC: Is it possible to imagine where Headspace and multimedia technology are headed in the next five years?

TD: Well I think it's hard to predict, but I think it's safe to say if left to its own devices, at the rate things are going in the computer industry, the level of sound and music on computers is going to advance very slowly. So, I'm here to act as a catalyst to remind the industry how important it is to the user experience. Generally they nod enthusiastically when I point this out but it's hard to get them to pull out their checkbooks and make the changes.

AC: If WebTV lives up to its promise to bring a broader, non-technical audience to the Internet, Thomas Dolby may be a household name once again.

TD: That's not really important to me, perfectly frankly. I see my role at Headspace as the figurehead and I'll certainly leverage my notoriety to make things happen for the company.

AC: You helped sow the seeds at the birth of MTV, a groundbreaking new medium, and now you're helping to invent the new mediums of multimedia and the Internet. Is it just a coincidence that we always seem to find you on the cutting edge?

TD: No, I think you'll continue to see me there, because that's where I'm most happy.

Thomas Dolby will deliver the keynote address at the South by Southwest Multimedia/Interactive Festival running March 8-11 at the Convention Center. Dolby will also sit on panels concerning Music & Multimedia and Art & Technology.

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