[Interview] Thomas Dolby Prepares Students for the VR Future

[Interview] Thomas Dolby Prepares Students for the VR Future

We sat down with Thomas Dolby at Maestro's Cafe to hear more about how he is preparing musicians and producers for the Virtual Reality future.

Thomas Dolby: So we're here at Peabody Conservatory, which is part of Johns Hopkins University. And for the last few years, I've been teaching at Johns Hopkins. Most recently the "Music for New Media" degree at Peabody. Which involves young composers learning to compose for picture. Be it film, TV, games, and virtual reality.

Will Mason: Very nice. You mentioned virtual reality at the end, which is where our material tends to slant. So what projects have you seen your students working on in the virtual reality world and what trends are you seeing?

Thomas Dolby: Yeah, this is a four year degree course and many of my students are gamers themselves and are very interested in VR and future forms of entertainment. But in order to be a competent composer in games and VR, it's important to understand the hundred year legacy of Hollywood film scoring. And because all of us have conditioned reactions to a certain sound, a certain chord, a certain orchestral flourish. We're sort of pre-programmed to expect those things. Whether virtual reality needs an orchestra playing in the background as you wander around is still up in the air. And what I love about it is that there is no rule book yet and I'm always very attracted to an area where nobody's written the rule book yet. So it would be an option for us to do fully interactive, fully spatialized orchestral music in real time in virtual reality. A score that adapts to each user's behavior and moods within an experience. Whether that is the right thing to do... I don't know, maybe that takes away from the sense of immersion? We don't know the answers. Hopefully over the course of the next four years between the students and myself, we will find some answers. And some of those answers you arrive at by making mistakes and realizing you're barking up the wrong tree.

Will Mason: Absolutely. I like your take on being the one who writes the rule book. Speaking of that, I know you had mentioned detecting what the user was feeling and the experience and trying to generate music based on what they're feeling. How does one go about collecting what the user's feeling or what the gamer is feeling?

Thomas Dolby: Well, interestingly, not far from here on the Johns Hopkins medical campus, there are people working on just that. Because they're looking at therapeutic uses of virtual reality. Both on the simulation side to train doctors and nurses for high stress situations, but also on the patient's side to help anxious patients before they go into surgery. With geriatric care, with mental care, with kids who are worried about going to see the doctor. All sorts of work being done in the area. Which also involves detecting various bio rhythms. You can be doing galvanic electrical response of the skin. You can be looking at people's eye dilation. You can be reading their pulse or heart rate, those kinds of things. And all of those things, I think, are going to come into play in virtual reality. It's going to be more than just an audio visual medium.

Will Mason: Wow. That's very exciting to think about and very cool to integrate the different technologies we've been seeing. Virtual reality, artificial intelligence, machine learning to detect what a person is feeling and responding to that on the fly. In a game experience or in something like Second Life. What is the biggest obstacle that you had getting to where you are now and how did you overcome it?

Thomas Dolby: In my experience in technology up to now, was sort of in two phases really. In the first phase I was a musician that was using available technology, often new ways that people hadn't thought of yet. Each new synthesizer that came out. Drum machines. Computer sequencers and so on. I would hop on it and I would sort of break it as best I could and find new ways to make music with it. But then I became so fascinated by the end of the eighties in how the software was made and how new hardware got designed, that I went to Silicon Valley and started working with companies there. And eventually I got frustrated being a consultant and I formed my own company, Beatnik. Which wrote an audio software engine and became a very central to audio on the web and made absolutely no money whatsoever. And probably would have gone up in smoke like so many other dot com companies in the 90s were it not for one deal. And that was with Nokia. Nokia licensed our technology and put it in every Nokia phone from about 1998 onwards. So those annoying ring tones you used to hear out of your Nokia phone were being generated by the Beatnik audio engine. So we eventually found a way to make money doing it. And in the process, I lost all interest in it because it wasn't very creative. When I look back to the stuff that I was doing 10 years before that -- where we weren't making any money -- it was wonderful and it was free and it was very imaginative. I much preferred what was going on then. So I just came to understand about myself that I'm not really a businessman and that's why this time around, I find the whole topic of sound and music and VR to be fascinating. And it's something that I touched on way back then, but it was too early. And it's about to come of age. But rather than being an entrepreneur and go back to Silicon Valley and get some VC money and, you know, start up a new company, I chose to pass on my experience and hopefully wisdom from the last few decades to the next generation of musicians. I'll be able to give a leg up based on my experiences. In four years, when they start to graduate from here, they'll go out into the workforce with a full set of a fundamental skills. Which is something that I never had.

Will Mason: That is a terrific exploration on your journey as an artist and in business as well. And I definitely relate to the art and business war that's inside your heart. As an artist, what would you recommend to a person who's trying to develop new art and make new groundbreaking things that speak to their passion? What would you recommend that they do and how would you recommend that they start if they haven't started?

Thomas Dolby: Yeah. You know, I think you learn by doing. I think that if you look at the tools of the trade, they have this sort of arc of maturity early on their Beta. Their very experimental, they break a lot. That can be very frustrating. Then they sort of reach a peak period in their development. And then they get bloated and they start randomly adding more features just to make it seem like there's a new rev. But actually the software is becoming less useful rather than more useful. And I always tended towards the front, right before something crossed the chasm in that whole lock, that was where I was most interested in it. Where most people were skeptical or dubious about it. And I feel that's the way with virtual reality. If you take social VR for example, it's very early stage. It's not at all clear whether Twitch games where you're shooting people or full fledged immersive experiences are going to be the killer app. And the software platforms and tools that we're using are very clunky and tend to break down a lot. And there's platform compatibility issues, portability between different headsets, server client issues with scalability. And this is the environment that I love, you know, where it's still the wild west. And I think that's fascinating. So I would encourage anybody to veer away from the mature tools that everybody's using. Like, don't, you know, use GarageBand to make your music at this point. Because 10,000 other guys have picked, "Loop 47" and "Drum Sound 102" and so you're not going to do anything new. There's just thousands of people in the same space. Go after the new tool that is unexplored and put up with the frustration of the crashing and the bugs and the Beta. But know that you're a pioneer. Know that your challenging yourself and stimulating yourself to dig in and find where your creativity lies.

Will Mason: Right on. Explore the wild west. I like it. Where can anybody find you if they're looking for your personal progress or what you're working on with Peabody?

Thomas Dolby: Yes, I'm easy enough to find on the web. ThomasDolby.com. Social media and so on. I also wrote a book, which was published just over a year ago. It was a bestseller on Amazon in the sort of, bio area. And it's about my experiences in the music business and then in the tech business. And it's called "The Speed of Sound." So if you want to hear my story, you should check out "The Speed of Sound." It's on Amazon Kindle, in your book shops, et cetera.

Will Mason: Thank you very much, Thomas. It's been a lovely interview and I hope to speak again soon.

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