By DONNA BALANCIA
Thomas Dolby will take the world stage this Saturday but it won’t be like any place on Earth.
On Saturday, Dolby headlines the virtual reality festival FUTVRE LANDS, presented by High Fidelity. The festival will be held in virtual reality, where Dolby has basically been living since 2014.
So when he takes the stage to play his music on Saturday on your computer, VR headset or other devices, it could seem like he is performing from anywhere — even a faraway planet.
That’s only one of the many things Dolby likes about VR. He’s a rare breed as a musician who loves tech. But because he’s so tech-savvy, he was selected to head up the Music for New Media Program at The Peabody Institute at The Johns Hopkins University. It’s a four-year degree program, through which he is able to bring new ideas to university and also to young musicians.
In the 1980s he was the lab-coat-wearing scientist jumping on and off a motorcycle in “She Blinded Me With Science.” The song was a mega-hit and had the kids dancing in the new wave clubs. He brought hope then, and he brings hope to up-and-coming musicians today.
Dolby’s Influence is Far-Reaching
It’s no secret Dolby’s a technology advocate, he’s been active in tech for years — since he was 17 — and got into VR when he was commissioned to work on an exhibit called The Virtual String Quartet, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1993. There was such curiosity in the blending of the words “virtual reality” with “Thomas Dolby,” that, Dolby recalls, there was a line around the corner.
In that particular work, the VR experience put the user among four orchestra musicians. Today, VR is almost boundless, not only in user experience, but also in application. It has b2b and b2c opportunities, with social VR taking a more prominent role.
‘I Can Dematerialize and Materialize’ in VR
“I have a Dolby avatar High Fidelity created for me, taken off a 3D print,” Dolby said. “They’ve put me on a stage on an alien planet with alien geography and plant life and so on.”
In addition to the concert by Dolby, other activities like giveaways and avatar costume contests are planned for the festival which runs from noon to 4 p.m. PDT.
There are a lot of positives for creatives when it comes to VR. There is a need for music and audio, Dolby said.
“The sound and music in a virtual environment bounces around,” he said. That’s what enables the immersive feeling. When you watch the the concert the sound will move around. And I can dematerialize and materialize or be in two places at once.”
Dolby’s latest music is a 2-CD greatest hits collection called Hyperactive. The release is part of BMG’s Masters Collection series.
One of the iconic images of the 1980s is of Dolby wearing his white lab coat jumping on and off a motorcycle and flirting with the sexy nurse in “She Blinded Me With Science.” Maybe some of the role-playing caught on.
Dolby Takes The Scientific Approach to Music
Dolby is a scientist of music and has incorporated technology into his work. He says that in addition to possibly creating new music careers, he said VR serves a good purpose for musicians: They don’t have to travel to hold a concert. He said having a concert in VR as he is doing with FUTVRE LANDS is quite a bit easier than traveling and lugging gear.
He said social VR also helps people break down the shyness in overwhelming situations.
He’s looking forward to the performance.
“The audience will be comprised of people from all over the planet who will share the concert for free in a shared environment,” Dolby said. “So some of our collective tribalism will actually take place but people will be in their living room not at an actual concert.”
Since Dolby’s been teaching at Johns Hopkins, a university known for its medical program, it puts him in proximity to the concerns that confront the community. He says some of those can be solved with VR.
Putting it succinctly, Dolby said: “I think VR is fabulous for anything you want to learn that’s scary.”
Socially that “scary” thing can often be having interaction with others. Dolby says those who are shy tend to be less shy when using VR.
As for business and government risk, users can assess a situation ahead of time and strategize. VR is helpful for first responders like firemen and police to rehearse or stage an operation through perilous endeavors.
“I was trying out a program with social workers going into potentially dangerous domestic violence incidents so for law enforcement and firefighters there are good uses in VR,” Dolby said. “That’s one way to look at it. In mission critical situations we can’t risk the closeness we can get in VR. There are people training to fix oil rigs in the North Sea. Performing medical care in war zones. It’s the closest way to be there when you can’t be there in person.”
“It’s interesting we’re here at Johns Hopkins,” he said. “Most people’s vision of VR is Ready Player One or Matrix where you step into reality for the sake of entertainment.”
Dolby on the Importance of Sound in VR
But entertainment is only a fraction of the things VR can do.
“VR sound has an important function, it contributes to your sense of immersion,” he said. “And often there’s a voice or sound effect that will lead you in the direction and give you a sense of the room, or the environment you’re in.”
As for the future, Dolby said there are opportunities for musicians.
“It’s not clear what role music will play,” he said. “There s a legacy of music in films 100 years old and some of that carries into VR. You could also argue ‘Why do we need an orchestra in film?’ It’s telling us how to feel. VR replicates real world experience but it has a way to go. And as VR continues to develop, I like that those definitions haven’t been made yet. These students will be the first generation to go into the world with this degree.”
To attend the fest, visitors can use their computers, their Google Daydream-enabled Android or put on the VR headset and head to the website of presenter, High Fidelity.
FUTVRE LANDS presents the festival completely in virtual reality. In addition to music performances, FUTVRE LANDS Virtual Reality Fest will also present game shows and a virtual bazaar.
Tune in for free on Saturday but tickets are required.