Thomas Dolby's Passion for Music and Technology Shines at Design West 2012 Keynote

I always expect to be inspired when attending a Keynote address at an industry trade show, but never to be entertained. Thomas Dolby's keynote accomplished both. I'm not a musician myself, so the idea of listening to a musician/technologist speak for an hour made me wonder if I should attend the keynote at all. I'm very glad I did.

If you're not familiar with Thomas Dolby, you might make the same mistake I did when I first saw him listed on the Design West web site. I thought he was affiliated in some way with Dolby Laboratories. He's not, although he said that he's had some business dealings with them in the past. For Thomas Dolby Robertson, "Dolby" is just a nickname.

Dolby the musician got involved with technology through his forays into electronic music. But the way he began developing this new found passion impressed me. When he first got the idea to explore this area, he built his own electronic equipment. Then later when he needed more horsepower to develop his ideas, he bought early synthesizers from Moog and Roland.

Regarding the entertainment aspect of the Keynote, Dolby actually performed three of his songs: Europa and the Pirate Twins, She Blinded Me with Science and HyperActive (all of which you can find on YouTube, of course). Not only did he sing and play the music onstage, but he also showed how he put the elements of the song together, which was quite a treat to see. I had never heard any of these songs before, but thoroughly enjoyed listening to them.

His quest to integrate music and technology led his company to develop an audio engine called Beatnik, which he referred to as Sound Blaster in software. In the 1990’s, he convinced Netscape to use Beatnik an add-on to the Netscape browser, and then later convinced Nokia to use it in its phones. By 2005, he said that he had licensed Beatnik to all of the phone manufacturers. Finally, in 2008 he licensed the Beatnik Audio Engine IP to chip manufacturers.

Not content with just the music end of the business, Dolby got into multi-player video games with his futuristic "A Map of the Floating City." He said that the game, which takes place after global warming has forced everyone on land to take up residence on the ocean, had 11,000 players at one point. Players would build ships from those discarded on land while trading ship items and working collaboratively to create the floating cities.

Dolby admits that he has gotten out of the technology end of the business to concentrate on his music now, but listening to his journey made me feel that almost anything is possible when you combine technology with your passion and talent. He joked about the demographic of the audience being the same as the one that might attend an oldies concert, but I saw enough young men and women in attendance who might be inspired to use their own creativity and talent to develop technical innovations in the future.

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Joe Desposito has held the position of editor-in-chief of Electronic Design since July, 2007. He first joined the publication in 1998 as a technology editor covering test and measurement but quickly...
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