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Thomas Dolby Streams Video Messages Back to the Future
The musician and internet-pioneer is traveling the United States, Canada, and Europe, asking people to record messages for an online video time capsule.

After 20 years away from the music industry, iconic retro-futurist Thomas Dolby is back. Like a wayward spacecraft, his Time Capsule Tour is weaving across the United States, Canada, and Europe.

Coming along for the ride is an aluminum- and brass-plated travel trailer that would be at home in a Jules Verne novel. This “Time Capsule” is a rolling homage to steampunk and is actually a portable video recording/streaming media studio. It is parked outside whatever venue Dolby is playing on a given day. Among its embellishments are a roof-mounted brass ray gun, a satellite dish, and barred copper portholes.

Fans can go inside the Time Capsule to record a 30-second Message to the Future. The videos they create -- tastefully tinted in sepia and with a slightly jumpy frame rate to create a Thomas Edison/turn of the 20th century look -- are automatically uploaded to www.time-capsule.tv. This is Dolby’s dedicated YouTube channel, where the videos can be accessed worldwide within minutes of being shot.

Sci-Fi Concept, Victorian Aesthetics

The concept behind this portable streaming media studio is for fans to send a message to the future. Seated on a couch inside the trailer, with its red velvet-curtained windows behind them -- a nod to the Victorian era that believed technology should be both elegant and functional -- people can address their descendants, future historians, or even alien archaeologists long after we’re gone.

This last perspective defines the message left by “Science Guy” Bill Nye. Looking like a craggy, beardless Abraham Lincoln, Nye explains humankind’s demise by saying, “What we did wrong is we didn’t include everybody in the world fast enough. We put too much stuff in the air. Climate change caught up with us, wiped out a lot of us. And the other thing we didn’t hustle on was deflecting asteroids.” (Note: Many of the other messages are more upbeat.)

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Among the fans leaving Messages for the Future in Thomas Dolby’s Time Capsule was Bill Nye, who used his time to discuss humankind’s imminent demise. 

In an exclusive interview with Streaming Media, Dolby explained why he created the Time Capsule. “It’s common for me to get back to my hotel room after a show, in fact, and find that photos from it are already on Facebook, and fan reviews have been posted online,” he says. “I wanted to take this involvement one step further by letting them play an active role in the Time Capsule Tour -- and to create something that might indeed be seen a thousand years from now.”

Dolby got the idea for the Time Capsule from the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, both of which have now traveled beyond our solar system. Each spacecraft carries a gold-plated copper disc that contains natural sounds, music, voices, and images from Earth. Should aliens in some other part of the universe find Voyager 1 or 2, these discs will give them basic information about who built the spacecraft, and who we were.

“This got me to thinking about YouTube and its digital content, which may last forever,” Dolby says. “It struck me that here was a way that we could aid our fans in communicating with the future. That’s why we created the Time Capsule production trailer.”

From an engineering standpoint, the Time Capsule trailer is relatively simple. There’s a video camera on a tripod pointed at the couch, and a monitor displays a countdown to the start of recording. “You have 30 seconds to have your say,” says Dolby. “The video is recorded on computer. Its effects software automatically adds the sepia toning and frame jitter, and then sends it by mobile or Wi-Fi to the YouTube channel.”

As for human intervention? Although they really aren’t necessary, the Time Capsule is manned by steampunked female assistants, who guide people in and out and keep an eye on things. Even in the future, eye candy still matters.

A Long Relationship With the Internet

Unlike so many artists from the 1980s music scene, Thomas Dolby is not a newbie when it comes to streaming content. In fact, the company he established in the 1990s (Beatnik, Inc.) created a download-fueled polyphonic ringtone engine that is now on 3 billion cellphones worldwide.

“The Beatnik engine was created at a time when the bandwidth just wasn’t there to send polyphonic ringtones to cellphones by wireless,” he explained. “The only way this could be done was by sending the tone broken up into smaller files, which were then assembled on the phone itself.”

Today, Beatnik remains a major player in the global cellphone market. But Dolby has taken his hands off the reins, returning to his “first love” a few years ago. “Beatnik grew to the point where it was all about sales and marketing; not creativity,” he says. “I just wasn’t having fun anymore. So I decided to get back to music and multimedia.”

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Dolby, pictured here with the Time Capsule, says the device was inspired by the Voyager spacecrafts, which have carried media from Earth far beyond the solar system. 

Returning to a world now interconnected by the web -- a world that was very much in his imagination decades ago -- Dolby seized upon the possibilities. Among his projects was the online video game A Map of the Floating City. Set in a post-World War II world “where things turned out very differently,” he says, this game has survivors of the human race coming together on an airborne floating city of rusted ships and rafts.

The reason for this chaos? According to a press release, “A global energy experiment went haywire, the Earth’s magnetic fields have been reversed, and the planetary climate system violated. Science has betrayed us: now what must the species do to survive?”

To survive (and to win the game), players have to take stock of their ships’ inventories and barter for what they need with other players. Add natural and manmade hazards -- often alluded to in advance on the site’s Floating City Gazette newspaper -- and succeeding in the Floating City game is not easy. But Dolby has made the journey worthwhile for participants by rewarding them with free music downloads and giving the winning tribe a private concert.

“The game was very much a run-up to my Time Capsule Tour, and featured music now found on my newest CD, A Map of the Floating City,” says Dolby. “It is a world where fans can really live in the retro-futuristic world that has evolved over my music career.”

At First, Not a Streaming Fan

Thomas Dolby’s status as an internet pioneer belies a little-known fact: He didn’t start out as a fan of streaming media.

“I liked the connectivity, but I hated the limits placed upon music streaming by the bandwidth that existed during the 1990s,” he says. “The degree of compression that was being done to stream audio down those narrow pipelines -- never mind video! -- did terrible things to the audio quality.”

Dolby wanted to use the web for moving content to fans, a desire that led to the development of the Beatnik ringtone engine. “My approach is more HTML than streaming,” he says. “When you see a web page, it is made up of all kinds of smaller elements that have been brought together. That’s the tack I took for moving audio on the web and mobile; to deliver better quality while working within whatever bandwidth was available.”

Even in today’s broadband world, Thomas Dolby is still concerned with file size and audio quality. In a posting on www.thomasdolby.com, he wrote, “A lot of people have been asking me whether I plan to release my new material in ‘lossless’ formats such as WAV or FLAC. The answer is that when the new album comes out, it will be available in higher-quality formats than MP3. Along with the physical CD (16 bit stereo 44.1khz) I plan to offer the album as a high-quality digital download (24 bit stereo 96khz AIFF/WAV) as well as FLAC.”

At the same time, Dolby is not moving into 5.1 surround sound. “I could fool myself into thinking surround sound would offer me a new canvas to paint on,” he wrote, “but that fact is, the majority of listeners would never hear surround mixes as they were intended, due to the discrepancy between speaker systems and listening environments.”

An ’80s Retro-Futurist Considers a Brave New World

Thomas Dolby loves vintage electronics, especially those artifacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “They are from a time when people were making tremendous progress, and coming up with radical ideas such as electricity, audio recordings, telephony, and movies that still define the world we live in,” he says. “Granted, some of the predictions they had about the future make one laugh, but overall it is amazing how much our Victorian ancestors got right.”

“Besides, I love the aesthetics,” Dolby noted. “This technology was imagined without any knowledge of integrated circuits. So everything is clockwork, brass, steel and wood, with perhaps some vacuum tubes and boiler-style gauges. It is a look that is near and dear to my heart.”

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Though the Time Capsule requires no human intervention in order to operate, Dolby has two steampunked female assistants guiding fans in and out to record their videos. 

The fact that this vision has been embraced by the steampunk movement amuses Dolby, given that he was into this genre long before it had a name. “Artist Amanda Palmer once said that ‘Thomas Dolby is to Steampunk what Iggy Pop was to Punk!’” mused Dolby. “I think what she means is that although Iggy looked nothing like the Sex Pistols, his approach and music had a fundamental impact on the punk movement -- and that’s the kind of impact I have apparently had on steampunk.”

Both artists have been completely un-self-conscious in making these impacts. For his part, Dolby is a retro-futurist simply because the past’s nostalgic view of the future appeals to him, not because he’s striking a pose.

Now living in a 21st century long removed from the 1980s, Thomas Dolby finds himself considering what to do next. “I am fortunate to have lots of loyal fans from the ’80s who have stuck by me,” he says. “My challenge now is to reach out and try to attract new, younger listeners.” In desiring this, Dolby has no ambition to return to the days of Top 40 radio airplay and restrictive recording contracts -- although he says it would be nice to break out of the clubs into larger halls again.

Asked if he is faced with reintroducing himself to the world audience -- much as Madonna is now doing -- Dolby agrees. But his characteristic modesty comes to the fore when this interviewer commented that this retro-futurist is a better dresser than the Material Girl. “Perhaps so,” he replied. “But Madonna is definitely a better un-dresser.”

In his quest to reintroduce himself, Dolby sees the current web as a blessing and a curse. “It is now possible for artists to reach the world without all the filters of record companies and details in their way,” he says. “At the same time, there are thousands of voices now competing for people’s attention: You have to find some way to cut through the clutter and get noticed.”

The Time Capsule Tour and its Message to the Future production trailer is part of Thomas Dolby’s reintroduction strategy. So too is his well-designed, Victorian-styled website with its blog, video clips, store, fan forum, and news pages.

Dolby’s new recording studio also fits into today’s Brave New World, given that it is entirely powered by solar and wind power. Yet the studio reflects his love of the past, having been built inside a restored, enclosed 1930s lifeboat. Renamed The Nutmeg of Consolation -- “Book 14 in Patrick O’Brian’s brilliant Aubrey/Maturin naval fiction series” says Dolby -- this lifeboat studio overlooks the North Sea on one side and marshlands on the other. “It is an incredibly capable yet peaceful facility.”

At press time, Thomas Dolby is miles away from his North Seaside home. Going from city tocity with the Time Capsule trailer in tow, he is bringing his vision of “futures past” to old fans and new fans, without any visible hint that 30 years have passed since his first hit single, “She Blinded Me With Science.”

“It’s great to be playing music again, and to be on the road meeting my fans,” he concluded. “And it is wonderful to have the Web and its many tools at hand today. Would I have succeeded today as I did in the 1980s, under today’s rules? I honestly don’t know. But I do know that modern technology -- such as streaming media -- offers me opportunities that I never had back then.”

This article was originally published in the June/July Streaming Media magazine under the title "Thomas Dolby Streams Back to the Future."