Meet Woody Norris

by Lynn Mills

What Is Woody Norris Like?

The delight Woody Norris takes in his inventions is that of a kid who grew up to be a toymaker, but didn't really grow old.

The interview in his Poway, California office is punctuated with grins and, "Do you want to see something cool?  Let me show you this!"

Whether it's a one-man helicopter that takes 30 minutes to learn to fly or stereo speakers the size of an Oreo cookie, you're nodding along with him, "Yeah, I've got to have this."

His enthusiasm is infectious, and his innovative creations back it up -- was Thomas Edison like this, you wonder.

How could he not be? The power to conjure up your wildest dreams -- high tech items you'd most like to browse through at Best Buys, inventions you know the world will beat a path to your door for and will pay a ton of money for. And through it all, he seems a little bit in awe of the possibilities himself. He quotes Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001 Space Odyssey -- "'Pure science is magic.' It is magic. The stuff we do today -- magic," enthuses Woody. 

The striking thing about Woody is that he doesn't seem like a genius. And he'll be the first to tell you that. The way he explains things is simple and understandable for the scientifically challenged, unlike those idiots whose job it is to write simple computer manuals that nobody understands.

He's no techno nerd. If more science teachers were like him, our world would be full of new marvels daily. Born in Barrelville, Maryland (which is right next to Mt. Savage, which is near Cumberland, of Cumberland Gap fame), his father was a coal miner with a third grade education and his mother only went through eighth grade.

Woody's electronics knowledge is mainly self-taught, consisting of repairing broken radios he begged from the local repair shop on the way home from school. "I had a chicken coop full of 20 or 30 or 50 radios... I fixed most of them." He had a mere six months of basic electronics training in the Air Force, where he worked with radar and electronics used to trigger A and H bombs.

"You know how some people can play the piano, they just pick out notes? I've always had that ability with electronics and I know rudimentary things about circuits just intuitively, or like it's psychology, know how they worked. And if I don't, I can figure it out pretty quick with just a clue here and there. So most of my electronic training is pretty elementary." Is there such thing as an inventor savant?

Woody joined the Air Force right out of high school because the hi-fi store to which he'd applied for a job didn't respond fast enough. While the results of the aptitude test he took in the Air Force said he could do anything, he was funneled into electronics, and stationed for a time at Monzano, a top secret base located inside a mountain in New Mexico.

"I hated it. I hated the Air Force. I wasn't making any money." To supplement the meager military paycheck (his Air Force duties only ran from 6:30 till noon), Woody worked as a cameraman at the ABC affiliate in nearby Albuquerque.

"I had a full time job from four until midnight. I was always dead tired. Midnight till 6:30 I got to sleep. Working at the TV station, I met a lot of pretty girls. We had a Dick Clark type dance thing. And I would date all the girls because I was the cameraman right out on the floor."

After four years of working his way up to Airman Second Class ("about as low as you can get"), he got a job at the University of Washington fixing electronic equipment. "I was making four hundred bucks a month, which was terrible at the time. Because I worked for the university, I could take classes for free. So I just took one during the day and then as many evening classes as I wanted for free. So I was having a heyday. I had a little old English Riley car that you cranked to start."

The courses varied -- electronic engineering, philosophy of religions, Spanish, business, psychology, accounting... a mishmash of knowledge which would serve him well in later years.

He regrets not attaining a degree, but, well, you know, he invented a couple of things and became slightly busy... not to mention rich.

While working on a phonograph tone arm that would eliminate the common linear tracking problems of the turntable, word got out and a fledgling company in Salt Lake City approached him about developing an invention for them. And oh, since one of the four partners was a doctor, they said it would be good if the invention was medical.

Using his experience in the Air Force, Woody came up with a sonar version of radar to listen to sounds inside the body.

"When a car or truck or train goes by and you hear the whistle go, aaaayuuuuu, it goes up and then down in pitch because sound waves travel at a finite, fairly slow speed. The pitch changes if the waves are moving as they are being produced. So I got this idea to emit ultrasonic sound into the skin, just with a little thing on the end of a flashlight I bought at Radio Shack. I put a speaker on the other end and through some little tricky math and manipulation, if anything under the skin was moving when that ultrasonic wave went in, it would bounce back -- the movement would cause it to shift its pitch. And by some tricky circuitry you could hear the movement under the skin."

The difference between Woody's "doppler" tool and a stethoscope is important. With a stethoscope, any particular sound to which you're listening -- whether a heartbeat, breathing, the heartbeat of a fetus -- is obscured by all the other sounds in the body. The doctor has to learn to discern it. But Woody's product was like a laser beam, with the ability to zero in on a particular blood vessel and stay on it even if a bunch of others crossed over it.

"I stole the idea from FM radio. There are only one hundred FM channels in the country, but there are 50,000 stations, maybe. So the same frequencies are used over and over again all over the country, they just keep them away from each other. But if you're on the fringe of losing an FM station, and you're moving into another one on the same frequency, it'll keep the weak one over the strong one because it's locked into that one. That's the nature of frequency modulator radio signals."

And, Woody admits, "You know what? I didn't invent that. It happens and I observed it. And so I claimed it. You know what inventing is -- I heard this from somebody else -- 'It's an accident observed.'"

Woody's doppler tool eventually evolved into the sonogram. "They put pictures to it and all that; mine was just sound. But that was a pretty big deal," says Woody in a massive understatement. "I made it on a weekend and I sold it and I quit working for the school. And I haven't really -- except for a real brief time -- worked for anybody since I was in my early 20's. I made my own living by my wits."

Woody was given 50,000 shares in the company and, at the time, knowing nothing about the stock market, he didn't pay attention when the company went public. A year later, they called to inform him of a secondary stock offering and the piggybacking of some of the shares of the founders. Woody casually asked what the stock was worth and was pleasantly surprised to find out that the shares had gone up to $8.

"So I had three hundred and some thousand dollars worth of stock for a weekend's work a year before. I quit work at the university and bought a milling machine and a lathe and a grinder and a sander and a drill press and every tool you could conceive of. I rented a little place and set up an inventing company and started to invent. Is that cool?"

Woody was still struggling with his tone arm when the Heath Technic Corporation offered to buy it and pay him to perfect it. Because he said he didn't want to work with other people, the company rented him his own private state of the art facility within a mile of his house.

"I was totally spoiled! I was making $600 a month when I left the university and I was making nothing when I was on my own for that brief time. They offered me $48,000 a year. That was $4,000 a month. I had so much money I didn't know what to do with it."

When Heath fell on hard times, he bought the tone arm back, then sold it to another person for a big chunk of money. Woody's empire was off and running. "So then I just started inventing stuff. And it's like anything else, once you start doing it, you get good at it. You get the routine down. Inventing is mostly a routine, I think."

So what sparks invention? "Thinking about it. If you are interested in math, and you read books on math and you do formulas, pretty soon you'll get insights that other people don't get because you attend to it. If you like music, writing music, or whatever, you'll develop a skill. Now, I will tell you that people who play the piano strictly by rote, taking lessons for 20 years, will never be as good as a guy who also has a knack. It's like an athlete. You can go to a certain limit as an athlete, but if you don't have the muscle structure and that and this and the other, the way the whole body is fixed when you're born, you'll never be a Michael Jordan. So there's a combination."

A vital part of Woody's winning combination has been his ability to sell himself and his products. Woody credits his high school drama experience. It began purely by accident when a boy he used to walk home with asked him to wait after school while he read for a part in the play.

"He said, 'You know, you should read, too.' So I got the lead in the play. And I got the lead in every play I ever did. When I graduated from high school, I got a national thespian award for acting. I was always going to do that (acting), but after high school, I went into the Air Force. When I got into the cameraman thing, I thought, 'When I get done with this, I'll go back and do acting.' But I didn't because I thought of an invention. I became an inventor."

"But I'll tell you something, if  you're an inventor and you start out poor the way I did, you need to know how to speak publicly, to convince people to invest in you. So the drama that I did in high school was the best thing I ever did. Never had any fear in front of any audience."

The inventor first stepped into the role of spokesman after inventing a child locater device to foil kidnappings. The VIPs of the company asked Woody to tag along to a TV interview in Los Angeles, just in case there were some technical questions they couldn't answer.

"They had this little room off to the side where the host took all of us. We sat behind the camera and the president sat with the host in front of the camera. The light on the camera comes on and the host says, 'First of all, tell us who you are, sir,' and the president says, 'Uhhhh. What's my name?' He couldn't remember his name. He says, 'I can't do this.' So I got drafted."

Woody completed the interview and became the point man for the company for all subsequent interviews. After that first interview, the TV station's switchboard operator told them they'd "gotten more calls than the day Reagan was shot." 

That's not to say Woody's a one-man show. He has developed a system of inventing, often working with a team of engineers and inventors.

"I got some intense electronics training for like six months in the Air Force, but I don't think it was college level. Everybody around here knows more than I do, but I speak all of it enough to not look stupid. And I know enough to find answers when I've got things I need to implement or to do. I'm way over my head right now in some of the inventions I'm working on, but I always do that." 

His is the creative mastermind, the one who has the vision, the one who can gather pieces of knowledge and put them together to answer "what if?"

"I came up with the idea for all these inventions and I would usually do a very crude prototype. But often after the prototype and the concept emerged, the engineers I would hire executed it with a whole different route, but ended up with the same destination... But these guys can't dream up products. I've got a really good gift of determining before you spend any money if a product is stupid or not. And most people lose that objectivity when they get involved in anything. Writing songs or writing a book. They think everything they do is wonderful."

"I read about Thomas Edison. He used to hardly ever sleep. Three or four hours at a time at the most. He would take keys and he'd sit in a chair and hold the keys. If he dozed off and the keys would drop on the floor, he'd wake up and he'd go to work. I don't do that. But I'm always thinking. Two o'clock in the morning, I'll wake up with ideas and I'll jot them down by the side of the bed. I jump around a lot by nature because I don't have a very long attention span. I always butt in, and I'm trying to shake that habit, but I can't help it. And sometimes I've got it before the guy's gotten it out. Sometimes I don't get it and I'm thinking I've got it, but I didn't."

He has thirty or forty U.S. patents and over 300 patents around the world, and another fifty or sixty pending. Currently, he's working on four things at once, three of which are top secret. "If any one of them succeeds, we'll all be rich," says Woody.

"Most inventors, the statistics published by the U.S. government say that one out of 2,000 patent applications issues as a patent. The rest are rejected. Out of the ones that do issue, one out of 2,000 of those issued patents ever makes enough money in its lifetime to pay what it cost to get it. So what's that? Four million. I've been really lucky. I think that's the lucky talent, to know when you've got a stupid idea. And most ideas are stupid. Most of mine are stupid."

So what's the stupidest he's come up with? "I usually don't spend more than a few minutes on something really stupid. I spent years on those books on tape. We recorded, for instance, an entire unabridged novel on one tape. Sixteen, twenty hours on one tape. We spent hundreds of thousands of bucks on it. To get the material, we hired college students from the university. They would work for five bucks an hour. But none of the distributors, the bookstores, wanted them because they wanted to sell a lot of tapes. So they didn't want a book on one long tape. And that was terrible. I can't think of any more stupid ideas. I guess you put those out of your mind."

It actually sounds like a great idea for consumers, just wrong for the marketplace. But that's another thing about Woody -- anything worth doing is worth doing for profit. Judging from the high security and high tech outfitting of his research and development facility, business must be good.

Not bad for a small town guy with no college degree and no clear direction in his youth. "They say life is what happens to you on the way to doing what you want to do. And I've just had a series of good things happen. But most of the good things that have happened to me in my whole life have been because I'm a good salesman. And that's probably the basic skill. If you're a good salesman and you can communicate well, you can almost be anything. Almost be anything. That's what I think."


Woody's Inventions

Hearkening back to his beginnings working on radios, many of Woody's inventions involve sound -- a unidirectional microphone, virtual speaker, electrostatic transducer, holographic transparent speaker, magnetic film (for sound recording), but Woody asserts, "I don't want to invent the same kind of stuff all the time. And since I've learned that inventing things in different fields doesn't mean necessarily that you're a total genius in that field because you can get that help from people that you can hire. I've decided I want to invent totally unrelated things like helicopters, like digital recording, like new ultrasonic speakers, like the medical doppler thing, like so on, and so on and so on." 

Following is a diverse sampling of some of Woody's current projects: 


Hypersonic Speakers

When it comes to sound, Woody's HyperSonic Sound System will get you closer to the music than VH1. He has totally revolutionized the conventional box speakers we've all grown up with and had to find room for in our living rooms. While speakers have been shrinking in the past decade, they've still had the cumbersome woofer/tweeter/midrange in a box design. Not to mention all the wiring needed to go to the speakers from the receiver. Woody goes even further.

He has eliminated the box altogether, allowing for a speaker the size of an Oreo cookie -- a mere 1/16" thick. The raw drivers look like art pieces, the imbedded circuitry looking like an artist designed it, not an engineer.

With conventional speakers, the sound is projected by moving the air containing the sound waves against a cone moving back and forth inside the box. But with Woody's speakers, it's a process that happens in the air itself. Sound is beamed at the wall and it comes off the wall where it is imbedded on top of the ultrasound. A process that happens in the air unimbeds it, or demodulates the two, so in essence, the room in which you are using the speakers is, itself, the speaker box. 

Again, it was inspiration engendered by observation -- by studying physicist Hermann von Helmholtz's findings of 150 years ago. Helmholtz noticed that when playing two loud notes on an organ, a third note is produced, whose frequency was the difference between the frequencies of the other two notes.

Instead of an organ, Woody uses a crystal that produces two high-pitched beams of sound beyond human hearing. The listener hears the difference in frequency between the two waves.

The crystal wafer projects the sound across the room onto a flat surface (a wall, for instance), like a ventriloquist throws its voice -- it's the sound equivalent of a spotlight.

One aspect of this design is that, unlike conventional speakers, the level of sound stays the same wherever you move in the room -- unless you're standing right by the speaker itself.

"That's pretty revolutionary being able to make sound that you don't hear unless it's a distance off," says Woody. 

In addition, the speakers feature "limited dispersion" -- the sound stays where it is beamed so the sound absorbing objects in the room (couch, rugs, etc.) are taken out of the formula to a great degree. So there's no compromise when you get your new speakers home -- they'll sound as good as they do in the store. "They will sound more the same in a room than any other speaker you will buy," says Woody. 

Woody is also developing a woofer for deep bass. It has been harder to shrink, but Woody's gotten it down to the size of a frisbee which you could easily hide under a couch.

In 1997, Woody's HyperSonic Sound received the prestigious Discover Magazine award for innovation in sound (at 3 million subscribers, Discover is the world's largest circulated science magazine). His competition was MIT, Toyota, and some other very formidable minds. Woody received the award from the grandson of Thomas Edison; he was also thrilled to meet Ray Charles, one of the judges in the sound category.

So far, Woody has contracted with RCA Thomson, Dolby, and Harman. With no wiring necessary, it will be a boon for homes with flat screen TV's, movie theaters, automobile sound systems... the possibilities are endless.

At five for $600, Woody says, "They sound as good as $3,000 speakers if you sat them down side by side." 

Artificial Hip Alarm

The Scripps Clinic contracted with Woody to develop an alarm to alert a patient that his artificial hip is starting to separate early enough that the patient can still do something about it on his own. "With an artificial hip, some things you can never do again, like tie your shoes, dangle your feet off the end of a bed, you have to consciously keep these muscles tight."

If a patient relaxes too much, the artificial hip can pop out of place, which is extremely painful and costly ($3,000) to replace. Woody's alarm alerts the patient when the artificial hip is starting to come apart by fractions of a millimeter so that he or she can tighten up the muscles around it and keep it in place. 

The doctors didn't want anything that needed batteries inside the human body because they would need to be replaced from time to time. Woody's device is worn on the belt and looks like a pager. A piece of electromagnetic tape which goes from the device to the hip sends a signal in through the skin which bounces back and warns that the hip is starting to move before it becomes a problem.


Woody's interest in flying, but frustration with private aircraft, inspired him to develop a single-passenger helicopter.

"I have a pilot's license and I never fly, because a private plane is like a soapbox derby. The walls are this thin. If you kicked your foot really hard, you could actually kick your foot through the floor of a private airplane. They're terrible!"

Then there's Woody's tendency to get lost. "To stay up in the air, you've got to be going 100 miles per hour. I frequently got lost! And so, I was trying to keep the plane flying in a certain direction and I'm also trying to look down at a map!"

And, of course, in the process, he's traveling 100 miles an hour out of his way, so he decided to invent an aircraft that could stop and hover in one spot while he got his bearings.

While helicopters fit the bill, learning to fly them is difficult and expensive, costing an average of $50,000 and many months to get a license.

In addition, they can be dangerous and difficult to fly due to the physics of the interaction between the rotating blade and tail rotor.

"I wanted something that somebody could learn to fly in a half an hour to an hour. I didn't know it at the time -- and I learned very quickly because you have to do that kind of research nowadays or you're stupid -- counter- rotating blades neutralize that particular danger. So I dreamed up this idea for my little helicopter with blades that counter- rotate and they neutralize the gyroscopic effect." It turns out that was the design of the first helicopter ever made.

"But, for the big payloads of commercial helicopters, and the things they need to do, two blades was impractical, so they got rid of the second blade and put a tail rotor on it. But for the weight class in which we fall, and the fact that we don't want to go up to where all the traffic is, our design is perfect and it had not been exploited in the direction I took it."

Woody and a partner funded it through the prototype construction, utilizing the services of eight NASA helicopter engineers. "The most brilliant thing was to get everybody out of thinking that you need to go 150 miles per hour and up 10,000 feet. The first question everybody asks me is how high does it go? My answer usually is, 'Who cares? If you're off the ground, you have the thrill of flying. If you're six feet in the air, it is the coolest thing on earth. You can go over rocks, jagged glass, water, bogs, marshes... You're free! It's better than a motorcycle ever thought of being!'" 

If it sounds a bit risky to market these in our litigation crazy times, understand that the computer system basically flies it -- the pilot overrides it. "The computer won't let you do anything totally stupid that'll cause you to flip over," asserts Woody. On the other hand, like power steering on your car, if it goes out, you can still operate it.

"This thing has a handlebar like a motorcycle. It's totally intuitive the way you fly it. Even a paraplegic can get up in one and fly it, he can be totally free. You don't need legs. It's all on the handlebars."

Eventually, they'll make a 3-passenger version, but initially, only a one-passenger version because an unlicensed pilot is only risking his or her own life.

"We actually have a little screen in the cockpit. You must say, 'I have read and I accept' and you hit "enter" or the engine won't start. And like my Lexus, which has that GPS screen on it, every time I want to use that map, I have to say, 'I accept.' It keeps a tally every day, what time of day I turn that map on. If I tried to sue them because I crashed into something looking at that map, they'd say, 'Seven thousand times, Mr. Norris, you punched ' I accept' -- now how many times do you have to do it to understand what it said? Prove to me that you read English.' That's the kind of stuff we're doing to protect our butts." 

There has already been interest from U.S. Customs, the military, and fire and police departments. Then Woody sees the market moving into recreation. "Honda invented the three-wheeler, which is now the four-wheeler, the quad, the ATV -- all terrain vehicles. There was no market data; nobody knew if it would sell. They had spare parts and they made one. Last year, collectively, the companies that make those sold $4.5 billion worth of those things."

Like the ATV's the only regulation for recreational use of Woody's helicopter would be that you couldn't fly them at night or in unauthorized areas. "There are 40,000 acres of land that's just woods behind my house that I can fly over. I'm not touching it. Environmentalists are going to love it." 

Woody imagines it eventually becoming a commuter vehicle. You don't need an airport to land at, when a roof will do. It goes 2 1/2 hours on a tank of gas (5 gallons). "The highways are jammed. If these things are proven to be safe enough in the next five or ten year period, it will happen."

Woody expects it will cost $25,000, half the price of a helicopter license. "This sucker is going to be big time." 


What are some Woody Norris successes?


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Revised: September 29, 2005