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City College of San Francisco
Fall 1997, Volume 1

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Thomas Dolby:
From Hyperactive to Interactive

Story by Shaunn Cartwright

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Imagine my surprise when, on an ordinary day at work, the person on the phone is Thomas Dolby. "The Thomas Dolby?!" I exclaimed. "Well, I hope there’s only one," the bemused caller said. Wow! A pop icon from my childhood was on the phone, and I, as a trained journalist, was losing my marbles.

When I got off the phone I couldn’t stop myself from running around the office telling everyone I’d just spoken with Thomas "She Blinded Me With Science" Dolby.

Back at my desk, I started roaming around on his Web site (www.headspace.com)which was heavily promoting some innovative and interactive technology they called Beatnik. Nine months later, I finally got to interview him.

Anybody who grew up in the ‘80s or has heard some flashback music show knows Dolby’s music, so I had to ask why he hasn’t put out a CD (which is cool) in four years and seems to be focusing solely on computer technology (which is nerdy). He said that he always saw it the other way around: "Computers were the cool thing, music was nerdy."

Dolby says he "never expected to have a chart hit of any kind," and that it’s "more important to stay true to my creative roots than to pander to the market place." He admits that his early pop icon status "opened a lot of doors ... and continues to."

Regarding "Science, " he says "It’s quite frivolous," and is not among the top 20 songs he’s written.

But is he content to be remembered as an ‘80s pop icon? No. Dolby, whose name is now Thomas Dolby Robertson (Dolby being a childhood nickname because of his interest in technology), is co-owner of Headspace Inc., located in the old city hall building in San Mateo, above a strip club and brewery. Headspace was created by Dolby Robertson and his personal manager, Mary Coller, in 1993 and made Fortune magazine’s hot list of "cool" companies in the July 7, 1997, issue.

Dolby Robertson is also co-founder of Beatnik, which he calls "the next generation of sound technology." According to the Headspace site, Beatnik is "a system for creating and delivering high-quality interactive music and sound on Web pages. It is the ONLY technology which combines the tiny file sizes of MIDI with the embedded copyright information to protect the rights of the RMF music authors."

For general Web users, Beatnik offers "great-sounding music which loads very quickly and can be controlled interactively, all accessible using the free Beatnik Player," says Dolby.

For Web designers, Beatnik offers "unparalleled control over the way music is used on a Web page and the ability to create anything from simple, embedded files to complex, interactive musical experiences."

It’s important to note that for composers like Dolby Robertson, Beatnik is the only way to "showcase music on the Web in a cross-platform format that sounds the same on all supported computers, doesn’t require expensive server technology, and provides crucial copyright protection."

So what’s so cool about the Beatnik plug-in? For one, it’s free! Yes, you read that right: It’s free. So "what are you waiting for?" asks Dolby Robertson.

The Beatnik site is user-friendly and fairly easy to understand. You can compose your own music or listen to the compositions of others. You can even listen to the 7-Up site (www.7up.com), view the upcoming Obisidan and Cyberia adventure games, and "The Virtual String Quartet" all done with Beatnik technology.

So how did Dolby Robertson go from music to computers, and what do they have to do with each other? "Science and technology are more interwoven than many people are aware," he says. He goes on to cite the fact that the number of musicians "that ever get to make a record or [who get radio play] represent one to two percent" of the people trying to do it. "I love the idea that the Internet is a level playing field. Gives Mozart a mouthpiece," he says.

He’s proud of the fact that the Beatnik plug-in has been given a "clean sweep of acceptance from the majors of the computer industry," and that it now comes with Web TV (which he has at his own home), the final shipping versions of Netscape Communicator and Netscape Internet Access Addition. Headspace has also licensed Beatnik to SegaSoft, Be. Inc. and Java Soft, a business unit of Sun Microsystems, Inc. to dramatically improve the quality of audio in the Java virtual Machine.

Headspace’s first major project was "The Virtual String Quartet" done for the Intel corporation, utilizing its Pentium processors. When the "Quartet" premiered at the Guggenheim museum in New York, daily attendance was sold out and it earned Dolby Robertson a Computer World Smithsonian Award nomination.

The Beatnik plug-in (free) and Beatnik editor ($99), is "a system for creating and delivering high-quality interactive music and sound on Web pages. It is the ONLY technology which combines the tiny file sizes of MIDI with the embedded copyright information to protect the rights of the RMF (Rich Music Format) music authors."

(So the next question is, will Dolby Robertson ever return to his performance artist roots? Perhaps, or he could renew projects he was doing before he formed Headspace, scoring films, creating soundtracks for animated features and commercials, and producing other music acts. Who’d he work with on those projects? Just a couple of no-names: George Lucas, David Bowie, George Clinton, Stevie Wonder and others. Dolby Robertson and Coller had a great time performing Pink Floyd’s "The Wall" at the Berlin Wall.

But for those who love his music and performance art, don’t fret, because Dolby Robertson said he’s toying with the idea of releasing a new album via the Internet but isn’t quite sure if he wants to be the first one to do it.

If you cant wait that long, pick up the soundtrack and video release of "The Gate To The Mind’s Eye," and an anthology of his works titled "Retrospectacle," available on Capitol Records.

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