History is replete with rival inventors battling one another to bring breakthrough creations to market: Howe and Singer over the sewing machine, Bell and Gray over the telephone, Edison and Swan over the light bulb. In many cases, the winner went on to become a household name and captain of industry, while the loser was essentially forgotten.
Now, in that same tradition, two inventors are each staking claim to a new audio technology that corporate customers say will have a huge market within the next five years. Known as directional sound, it uses an ultrasound emitter to shoot a laserlike beam of audible sound so focused that only people inside a narrow path can hear it. “It’s phenomenal,” says Simon Beesley, an audio marketing manager for Sony’s European business division. So far Sony has sold just a handful of directional-sound systems for specialty installations in stores and other locations, but ultimately, says Beesley, “Without question, this is going to be a billion-dollar-plus product.”
But who will claim that billion-dollar prize? Elwood “Woody” Norris, of Poway, CA-based American Technology Corporation (ATC), and F. Joseph Pompei, of Watertown, MA’s Holosonic Research Labs, have harnessed the same scientific principle to create competing directional-sound systems, and each insists his version will transform acoustics. Norris and Pompei both envision a family of four sitting in a car enjoying four different musical selections or radio broadcasts at once–with no headphones. They also see street-level billboards or displays in retail locations that speak only to one passing consumer at a time, or a crowded trade show in which the cacophony of thousands of product demonstrations is replaced by thousands of focused beams of sound confined to their own exhibits. Rather than using a megaphone, a police officer could control crowds by directing his or her voice only at a person creating a disturbance. The ultimate goal, say both inventors, is to replace a large number of the millions of loudspeakers sold each year for home entertainment and personal-computer systems with directional-sound devices.
They may share a vision, but these dueling inventors could hardly be more different. Woody Norris is a 65-year-old West Coast maverick with no college degree who got most of his formal education during a stint as a radar technician in the U.S. Air Force more than 40 years ago. The holder of a once valuable but long-expired patent on diagnostic ultrasound, the self-taught inventor has made a personal fortune that he estimates is in the tens of millions of dollars by inventing audio devices, including a hearing-aid-sized FM radio, a line of flash-memory voice recorders and car audio systems, and several models of cell-phone headsets. He has been at work on what he calls “hypersonic sound” for much of the past decade and claims to have invested $40 million in its development. “He has an intuitive understanding of physics and electronics,” says Curt Edgar, senior manager for advanced technology at DaimlerChrysler, who has met with Norris for demonstrations. “He’s also got incredible persistence.”
In sharp contrast, Joe Pompei is a 30-year-old East Coast entrepreneur with impressive educational credentials but little track record as an inventor: his Audio Spotlight system is his first major invention. In high school and during breaks from college, while working part time for Bose, the Framingham, MA, loudspeaker manufacturer, Pompei took note of the limitations of traditional speakers. But, he says, executives at Bose “were not interested in hearing about the future of sound from a 20-year-old.” After receiving his electrical engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he went on to get his master’s in psychoacoustics at Northwestern University. He says it was there, in the mid-1990s, that he got the idea for using silent ultrasound as a way of producing audible sound. “I was considered a mad scientist,” Pompei recalls.
He first demonstrated the basic principle at the MIT Media Laboratory. While completing his PhD at MIT in 2002, Pompei launched Holosonic, bootstrapping the company with just a few thousand dollars of his own research stipend money. Pompei’s system “really does behave like a spotlight,” says David Rabkin, vice president of technology at Boston’s Museum of Science, which uses the system in an exhibit. “You point the beam at one person and light them up with sound. But once you step outside the beam, the sound drops off quickly.”
The technologies and the visions of the inventors are strikingly similar. So it’s likely that the differences in their personalities, backgrounds, and business tactics will be critical factors in deciding who is the first to overcome the roadblocks–including high costs, lack of mass-production standards, and performance kinks–that stand between them and the lucrative markets they both envision. Which one of them prevails, if either, will speak volumes about the relative value of education and experience, youth and wisdom–and perhaps luck and timing–in ensuring an inventor’s place in history.