August 5, 2002
Hearing Is Believing
Woody Norris wants to tell you something -- and he can put the words inside your head from 100 yards away. Is his invention sound or just a pipe dream?
By Jame Reno and N'Gai Croal
In this Post-Enron era, there aren't too many CEOs who will cheerfully volunteer to a reporter, "My company's never made a dime!" But the American Technology Corp.'s Elwood (Woody) Norris isn't your typical CEO. Blessed with the bone-crunching handshake of a used-car salesman, the R-rated vocabulary of a drill sergeant and the potential innovative genius of a Thomas Edison (Norris's previous claim to fame was creating a forerunner to the sonogram), Norris has an enthusiasm for his latest contraption that's infectious. He's standing in a corner of his cluttered San Diego office, holding a gizmo that looks something like a retro-futuristic waffle iron with a portable CD player Velcroed to its back. "Are you ready?" he asks, then points his invention directly at the head of someone who's just entered the room 10 feet away. "Now, can you hear it? Can you hear it? Isn't that unbelievable?" What the person across the room hears is, well, unbelievable: all of a sudden, the sound of a waterfall has materialized in his head. And, it turns out, no one else in the room can hear it but him. It's as if the sound is coming out of thin air. As Keanu Reeves said in "The Matrix": whoa.
After more than a decade of trial and error and about $30 million in R&D, the 63-year-old Norris may be on the verge of changing the world as we hear it -- and making some major money to boot. The HyperSonic Sound System (HSS), as he calls it, can take an audio signal from virtually any source -- home stereo, TV, computer, microphone, etc. -- and convert it to an ultrasonic frequency that can be directed like a beam of light toward a target up to 100 yards away. Picture a car where parents can listen to the Eagles while their kids wild out to Eminem in the back seat. This is big audio dynamite -- possibly the biggest breakthrough since modern speakers were conceived 77 years ago -- and Norris knows it. "It's rare when you have a Thomas Edison who actually gets fame and success in his own lifetime," he says with customary modesty. "This is a big, honkin' hit."
What's the secret? In the range that human beings can hear, sound scatters in all directions, like the light from an open flame. Traditional speakers work by moving air; they rapidly vibrate the flexible cones in your speakers to form sound waves. But no single speaker can accurately reproduce the full range of audible sound (approximately 20Hz to 20,000Hz), so loudspeakers rely on separate units -- large woofers for low frequencies, small tweeters for high frequencies and midrange speakers for the middle of the audio spectrum -- to re-create the whole range of sound. That works fairly well, but it also has some drawbacks, most notably distortion from the multiple sound fields that become increasingly apparent as you pump up the volume.
Instead of using a vibrating membrane like traditional speakers, the HSS technology electronically converts audible tones into a pair of ultrasonic waves at frequencies far beyond human hearing. But when the ultrasonic waves interact after being processed by Norris's creation, they reproduce the original audible frequency. Even better, since the audible frequency is being carried by those ultrasonic signals, it's highly directional. That means you can effectively "shine" a spot of sound wherever you want it. What Norris has done over 10 years is to figure out a relatively inexpensive way to combine the two ultrasonic signals to produce the desired sound. Two weeks ago ATC started limited production, and the company's small lab is already strewn with the devices. Prices are expected to range from $600 to $900 per unit, depending on size.
It's easy to see how HSS could make some magic. Imagine a home theater system optimized not for your entire living room but for the club chair that you kick back in. Or a giant nightclub with several different music areas on the dance floor, none of them overlapping. But Norris has $30 million in costs to recoup, and HSS isn't yet perfected for the lower tones prevalent in music. So some of the cooler stuff will have to wait while he hooks up with retailers and the U.S. military for "Minority Report" - style applications: vending machines that call out to you as you walk by; sonic "guns" that can incapacitate the enemy with 150 decibels of sound without deafening the good guys. One person who came away impressed is U.S. Marine Capt. Todd Gillingham, after a recent demonstration for more than 40 military and law-enforcement representatives. "For instance, it can send the tape-recorded sound of a tank or explosion to another area to throw the enemy off," he says. "I don't know about us acquiring this technology in any large quantities at this point, but I do think it has great potential."
That's music to the longtime inventor's ears. After Norris sold his first patent for $330,000 in the early 60's, he quit college and never looked back. His subsequent efforts range from an all-in-one earpiece-microphone for hands-free mobile-phone use (sold to another company for $1.5 million), the world's smallest AM-FM radio (a modest success) and a personal aviation device (a James Bond-like mini-helicopter that has gotten off the ground, but has yet to truly take off.) All this and more can be perused at woodynorris.com, his hilariously self-promotional Web site, where every article ever written about him or his products -- from publications like Popular Mechanics and Business Week to Playboy and Gallery -- has been carefully scanned and posted. And Norris's outsize dreams extend to Hollywood; he likes to show off his sci-fi screenplay about -- surprise -- the world's greatest physicist.
Not everyone is a believer in the San Diego inventor. A local newspaper characterized him as "a dream spinner who regularly disappointed Wall Street with glowing predictions for various electronic products that subsequently flopped." Floyd Toole, vice president of acoustical engineering at the high-fidelity audio company Harman International, met with Norris several years ago and remains skeptical. "It's a party trick," says Toole about HSS. "We don't believe it represents a paradigm shift in mass-market audio." Perhaps Norris's harshest critic is former MIT Media Lab researcher Joseph Pompei, who's developed a rival product under the name Audio Spotlight (automaker DaimlerChrysler is evaluating it in some concept cars) and accuses Norris of everything from taking credit for the work of others to dubious business practices, all of which Norris denies. "For over a decade, [Norris has] promoted impressive-sounding technology of which he has very little evidence of real understanding," says Pompei. Norris shoots back: "His unit is where we were five years ago."
"You know Panasonic's slogan 'Just slightly ahead of our time'?" Norris asks. "Everything I've ever invented has been about 10 years ahead of its time. I know the reputation I have in San Diego; that I take too long on these things, that nothing I've invented has ever made money. Well, this will be my vindication." The world will be watching -- and listenting.
Copyright © 2001-2005 Woody Norris. All rights reserved.
Revised: September 29, 2005