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STD supports the EFF STD lyrics may be explicit This is Russ This is the dead Mark This is not-dead Mark This is Steve


Rocking the Internet

Charlotte Thomas

Appeared in CareerTech Online on February 2, 1998

Reading their list of firsts, you'd think that, technically, these are some very ingenious people, and you'd be right: First entertainment on the MBone; First interactive live video program on the Internet; First video remote-controlled camera on the Internet; First audio mixer on the Internet; First web-controlled fog machine; First custom; Compact Disc orderable on the Internet; First worldwide pantsless broadcast. Uh-h-h-h, did you say pantsless?

Well, that's Severe Tire Damage (STD), a rock and roll band a little on the punk side with the requisite attitude and the technical intellect to back it up. The band members' credentials are impressive. Drummer Mark Weiser, chief technologist at Xerox PARC and formerly head of its Computer Science Lab, is referred to as the Father of Ubiquitous Computing. He's now researching Calm Computing. Bassist Mark Manasse, who came from Bell Labs' Murray Hill New Jersey Computer Science Research Lab, and currently is a software consultant at Digital Equipment's (DEC) Science Research Center (SRC) doing work in microcommerce. Vocalist Steve Rubin left Apple Computers Advanced Technology Group to create his own startup, Electric Editor, Inc., an industrial CAD/CAM software company that's banking on a program he wrote. Guitarist Russell Haines, also an ex-Digital SRC employee, who heads his own commercial video firm.

Rock the Net

Rocking and rolling on the edge of unconventional interaction, an R&R band made up of Silicon Valley techno wizards takes to the Internet with weekly live on-line rehearsals and a web site selling custom CDs. At the same time, they're pushing the envelope of Internet technology.

Furry Palo Alto Geeks

In the thick of Silicon Valley innovation, STD is pushing the envelope of interactive media on the Internet, and, as can be seen from their list of "Firsts," they seem to do it before anyone else. Even the Rolling Stones. Back in June 1993 when HTML was more common in alphabet soup and the MBone, or the Multicast Backbone, was another technical novelty, STD was the first band to perform live on the Internet. Tuned in geeks from as far away as Australia took note. However, the Rolling Stones didn't and little more than a year later, publicized the fact that they were going to be the first band to play live on the Internet. "Not so," said STD. "Well, we mean the first MAJOR band," noted the Stones' web site. "Hmmmm," said STD, some of whose members had helped create the audio broadcasting technology the Stones were going to use. Rising to the challenge, STD crept into the dead 20 minutes of time prior to the Stones' appearance and, complete with pirate logo, opened for the legends and then filled in afterwards.

Retaliation was swift. "Furry Palo Alto geeks playing moldy campfire music," the Stones harrumphed. "You bet," responded STD. "Except we're not from Palo Alto," added Haines. STD also was quick to point out that their sound quality was better than the Stones. So there. What would you expect from a bunch of musically inclined computer science types? Such is the sweet revenge that the technical smarts of a rowdy rock and roll band allows. STD doesn't pretend to, nor do band members say, they want to attain the levels of notoriety that successful music groups scramble for. "We know our music sucks but we have a good time with the technology," says Haines. Proving the point, Rubin admits, "We're known as the band that has more computers than band members."

Indeed, their fascination with interactive media via loud R&R has taken them in all kinds of fun directions. Says Weiser, "The Internet was new, and we were doing something new with it. It's like when you're playing with a new toy." Yes, the additional bells and whistles STD has come up with are fun and games, but in the meantime they're staking new technical ground. Take their often weekly rehearsals. No garage musicians these. Squeezed into a basement storage room at DEC's Research Center, they've become a drawing card for high-tech types who wander in to see what technical curiosities STD is up to. They usually find plenty once the Wednesday night rehearsals finally get going after reportedly prodigious amounts of food and drink are consumed. What makes these rehearsals unique is that audience participation is not limited to what the room can hold. STD is live on the Internet, and viewers with the right kind of software can tune in and literally turn on a variety of gadgets STD has generously put in place for their amusement. It's safe to say the Stones don't allow onlookers to fiddle with their sound mix. But STD does, and more.

Turned on by a Fog Machine

Though only those listening on the MBone can hear the results, the audience can adjust the levels of each instrument on a mixer remotely controlled by computer. The mixer STD got off the shelf. The software to connect it to the web was written by Berry Kercheval, a researcher at Xerox PARC who also recorded most of STD's album. As if this wasn't enough interaction, hooked up viewers can play with a live video camera that can be tilted and panned at will. STD also came up with the appropriate software to allow this. The "how to play with the camera" on STD's web site tells viewers that "they can turn the whole broadcast into a bad home video with just a few quick clicks of a mouse." What with the fog machine under Internet audience control, rehearsals can get out of hand, and often do, but the band enjoys the response they get from their virtual audience. Says Weiser, "As we're playing, our engineer will call out. 'Here are two more people from Korea, one more from Finland.'"

In a more serious vein, Weiser notes that as the band gets more and more into developing uses of the Net, STD is riding the crest of unconventional interaction. Even the relatively new uses of virtual reality are left in their wake. "Star Trek had virtual reality for 30 years, and you didn't see an alien controlling the mix," Weiser says. STD's web site, up for four years, continues their innovative thinking by incorporating new code and autoloading streaming audio. The site (www.std.org) is mostly the work of Haines who is responsible for all the art work, text and a lot of the code. "I'm the glorified web master, writing HTML, Java script, setting up a server or two as well as all the 3D annotations," he says. Products from custom CDs to T-shirts and music clips add to the goodies.

Lyrics a "Tad on the Cynical Side"

But enough of this technical stuff. What does their music sound like? Well, you could tune into their web site and check out the sounds from any one of their many CDs for sale or you could take their word for it. "Really bad. Loud and bad," says Haines. "We've gotten better in the last couple of years. We're not as painfully bad now, just bad." "Musically, we're all over the map," responds Manasse, who says that their most popular songs are closest to Van Halen, but they are free to play what and how they want since they make their living doing other things. In Rubin's opinion, STD is "Totally strange, but we like to think we're danceable." Which is good since STD does play gigs and gatherings, and as Manasse points out they're starting to make a name for themselves by "ruining a lot of parties." Understandably, with STD's abundant wit, lyrics play an important part of their music. Rubin and Haines both write a lot of them. "We're remarkably uncreative in that area," says Haines.

Manasse describes the lyrics as a "tad on the cynical side." However, this could be the understatement of the year with song titles such as Carcinoma, Chris Killed Your Dog, and an especially irreverent tribute to Lady Di. Most of their songs have some basis in reality. One song, written by a faculty member at Cornell, sings of Evariste Galois, a French mathematical genius, who was close to finishing up "one of the most influential treatises on algebra" but was shot to death in a duel.

With articles in major newspapers and magazines, TV and radio appearances, STD's notoriety grows steadily and is sure to broaden from the "15-year old Korean boy," that Manasse characterizes as their typical fan. This was the result of a telecast of STD on Korean TV that apparently half of Korea saw. Even so, Weiser says, "We're not trying to become famous rock stars. Mostly we're trying to have fun." "Once or twice a month we get e-mail solicitations by people not better connected than we are," says Manasse. "We're not in this to make money." Given that approach, it's not too surprising that Weiser's advice to graduating engineers is to do what they love. He finds this out about the people he's interviewing for jobs at Xerox. "I ask them what their hobbies are, and if I get the impression they really enjoy technology and are constantly developing new skills, then I know they're explorers," he says.