The Wall Street Journal
April 1, 2004
New Laserlike Sound Beams Send Messages to Shopper, Aid the Military in Iraq
At a Safeway supermarket in Fremont, Calif., recently, Donna Now was caught off-guard by a subtle voice above the corned beef. Glancing up, she saw a plasma screen bursting with color and seeming to address only her. The voice pitched a special on Sara Lee honey turkeys and brown-sugar hams.
"It's pretty powerful," Ms. Now said. "I mean, I'm a vegetarian, but this makes you want to buy that ham."
Ms. Now had literally crossed paths with what could be the future of sound: narrowly focused sonic beams that can be directed and shaped, much as light is. Marketers and military planners alike are keenly interested in the technology, albeit for different effects.
In tests at retail stores, these laserlike sound beams pinpoint individual shoppers to encourage buying with recorded messages.
In Iraq, meanwhile, soldiers plan to use such sound beams to communicate with people approaching checkpoints. They even could be used to induce headaches among people who don't respond to authorities.
The company at the vanguard of these acoustic tricks is minuscule American Technology Corp. of San Diego, founded by a homespun entrepreneur who holds 43 U.S. patents despite never finishing college. Elwood Norris, a youthful 65-year-old known as Woody, has tinkered with electronics since his teens. In the 1960s, he invented a precursor to the sonogram. Later, he created a hands-free headset for cellular phones and sold it to Jabra Corp., a leading cellphone-equipment company.
Now he is focused on HyperSonic Sound, the product used at the Safeway store. It sends a column of sound that can't be heard just inches to either side of it, and can be molded to make the sound stop dead after a short distance. One application he's pursuing with car makers: Speakers that allow the driver, front- and back-seat passengers to listen to different music without intruding on anyone else's sound.
"We can do what physicists thought could never be done," Mr. Norris said.
Even as this potentially revolutionary technology gains credibility, obstacles abound. HyperSonic Sound is expensive. American Technology is working to overcome reliability and production kinks in the product and, meantime, add professional management to its executive team. In the past, Mr. Norris abandoned or failed to commercialize some promising inventions.
American Technology says it has spent $50 million since 1996 to develop and patent HyperSonic Sound. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the publicly traded company lost $8.2 million on revenue of $1.3 million.
Military products are helping American Technology boost sales. The company won its biggest contract ever in February, a $1.1 million award from the Marines for the Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD. The 33-inch-diameter product looks like a manned spotlight but directs a sound beam up to 1,500 feet. It can serve as a megaphone to issue instructions to someone approaching a checkpoint, to determine whether the person is trying to attack. The First Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq will use LRADs with MP3 players that have prerecorded Arabic warnings, including, "Stop or I will kill you."
The Marine units that have the LRAD have found it "quite effective communicating at great distances," said Capt. Dan McSweeney, a Marine spokesman. He emphasized that the intended use is as a "high-powered bullhorn," not a headache-inducing weapon, which would require extensive testing and legal reviews.
In a test at American Technology's parking lot, such orders come through loud and clear from more than 300 feet away, obscuring the traffic noise from an adjacent highway. Then the operator switches to "tone mode" to show what happens to people who don't halt: The disk emits a grating noise that is unsettling at low volume, and excruciating enough at high volumes to cause headaches. It affects only the person or small group at whom it is aimed.
"If the intruder keeps coming, he buys a bullet," said Carl Gruenler, vice president of military and government operations at American Technology. "This gives breathing room to soldiers. Before, it was: Shoot and wish you hadn't, or don't shoot and wish you had."
Launched last year, the product is being tested on Navy ships, and was used by police in Miami for crowd control during a free-trade conference last year. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is considering it for perimeter security at airports. Police in Orange County, Calif., are examining another use: to flush fugitives out of buildings.
Mr. Norris's passion, however, is the commercial success of HyperSonic Sound, the technology being tested in supermarkets, pharmacies and eyeglass shops. "First, I'll put some sound on the wall," he said, demonstrating in a room at company headquarters. He aims a square speaker at the wall, which resonates with high-fidelity dripping water. Turning the panel toward a visitor, the sound shifts to the middle of his head, as if he is wearing headphones. Swiveling it left and right gives the sensation that the sound is passing through one's head. "It's holographic," Mr. Norris said.
Unlike conventional speakers, which project a sound wave that disperses in air, Mr. Norris's invention emits a focused wave of ultrasound, using frequencies beyond the range of human hearing. The ultrasound becomes audible as it mixes with air, creating a column of sound with virtually constant volume. No sound is projected behind or to the sides of the emitter.
Mr. Norris said his breakthrough was engineering an emitter that could produce ultrasound in sufficient volume and clarity. Other companies are trying to match the technology, but "they keep bumping into patents, mostly Woody's," said Simon Beesley, a Sony Corp. product manager in London who is incorporating HyperSonic Sound into store displays that use Sony screens. American Technology has resolved initial production flaws and its product is getting positive results in European trials, Mr. Beesley said.
In the U.S., big names are testing the waters. Teamed with Safeway is Walt Disney Co.'s ABC television network, which is mulling an in-store network to reach the millions of eyeballs and eardrums in checkout lines. Previous attempts failed because the cashiers got fed up hearing the TV.
In the Fremont trial, 10 Safeway checkout counters boast flat screens broadcasting ABC promos and program excerpts. Actors do separate spots, such as two stars from "Less than Perfect" asking shoppers if they want paper or plastic grocery bags. Elsewhere in the store, four larger screens mix in Safeway ads and shopping teasers, including one in which an ABC actress says, "Oh, baby carrots. They're so dang cute."
Mike Benson, ABC senior vice president for marketing, said that results of a recent three-week test at three Safeways aren't in, but the network is interested in the project now that "sound technology has caught up." Safeway declined to comment.
Some Fremont shoppers didn't notice the screens, perhaps inured to supermarket white noise or in too great a hurry. Others were bemused enough to ignore that traditional checkout-line staple, the National Enquirer. One shopper, David Abad, was turned off by the technology. "There's a subliminal message to buy this or that," the electrician said. "It distracts you from the prices that you're paying."
Copyright © 2001-2005 Woody Norris. All rights reserved.
Revised: September 29, 2005