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Severe Tire Damage, The Internet's First Live Band

· by Karl Auerbach · Read in about 4 min · (657 Words)
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Commentary by Karl Auerbach

From the perspective of 2014 it is hard to imagine that there was a day when the internet carried no music, no video.

Yet there was such a time. And someone, or some group, had to be the first.

There were early experiments. In the 1970’s SRI had a converted “bread truck” van that was driven up and down US 101 in the San Francisco Bay area while exchanging packets of conversational voice with less mobile users.

And the Multicast Backbone (M-bone) carried voice, video, and shared whiteboard for IETF meetings (and any other willing users) in the mid to late 1990’s.

It has long been noticed that there is a strong correlation between those who work in mathematics or computer science and those play musical instruments. Severe Tire Damage was (and still is) a group of computer technologists from Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), Xerox, Apple, and Sun who formed a party band.

They were in the right place at the right time to notice the MBONE and use it to make all the world their stage.

They often performed from the basement parking lot of the DEC Western Research Lab - a name familiar to early users of the net. DECWRL was located in central Palo Alto - walking distance from Stanford.

Their most famous act was when they jumped in and made themselves the opening act for the Rolling Stones.

Severe Tire Damage played in the era before copyright owners got scared or saw the net as a way to print money. And it was also in the era when the net was still considered open territory for anyone and everybody to experiment and play. The end-to-end principle was the rule of the road; there were few firewalls or filters; and there were no dominant carriers trying to monetize packet carriage or to coerce payment from users who wanted to send or receive multimedia content.

The technology used by Severe Tire Damage used IP multicast packets to carry UDP frames. Early versions of what would eventually become the RTP/RTCP protocols were used. “Advertisement” of the performances were made using the SDP protocol. Audio was usually monophonic or stereo stream at roughly POTS telephone quality. Video was low frame rate with postage stamp sized frames. This is a long way from today’s 4K at 30fps with 48K multichannel sound. However many of the issues are the same - how does one handle packet delay or loss? How does one synchronize the audio and video (i.e. lip sync)? How is bandwidth use kept within reasonable bounds? And so forth.

Unlike much of today’s multimedia on the internet, the MBONE - and thus Severe Tire Damage’s performances - are two way; the listeners could respond - in audio or video or both - in real time. I have heard that in one MBONE experiment a microphone was placed in front of a metronome and a group of chamber musicians in separate locations connected by the MBONE played together using the metronome as a kind of conductor. (Because of network delays the players could not hear on another in real-time, rather they had to trust that everyone was playing according to the metronome.)

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Severe Tire Damage was the first band to perform live over the internet.

Starting in 1993 they broadcast video & audio over the internet’s IP Multicast Backbone - the MBONE.

The band performed in garages and at parties.

At a conference they gave a technical talk that was also a live, online performance.

In 1994 Severe Tire Damage opened for the Rolling Stones in the Stone’s first online show.

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Severe Tire Damage

Russ Haines
Digital Equipment Corporation

Mark Manasse
Digital Equipment Corporation

Steve Rubin
Apple Computer

Mark Weiser
Xerox PARC

Raw Takes

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