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Pumping Up the Volume

The paths of the two inventors, on the other hand, are converging on a marketplace battlefield where corporate customers will be won and lost. The clash is already fierce. Pompei, for instance, says that his is the only directional-sound system that has been built into a vehicle from a major manufacturer.

In fact, three years ago, when the Audio Spotlight was part of a project at the MIT Media Lab, research sponsor DaimlerChrysler did indeed incorporate a prototype into a concept car, with transducers located above each of the four seats in the cabin. “Functionally, it worked,” says Daimler’s Edgar. But there was one main glitch: the beams would bounce off of the seats and other surfaces, deflecting sound between the zones. Because of that drawback, and the high cost of the system, the automaker didn’t pursue it further. Instead, a year ago, Edgar got in touch with Norris. “ATC has made more strides, in terms of cost and manufacturing and performance,” says Edgar. “They are a couple generations beyond where Holosonic was.” Still, Norris’s system has yet to be built into a vehicle, and there are no immediate plans at Daimler to do so.

Norris admits that he is working on improving the performance of his Hypersonic Sound system. One issue is the technology’s current inability to produce low bass tones, a shortcoming that Pompei’s system shares. But Norris says that Sony is already rolling out the product in Europe. Sony’s Beesley confirms that the company has to date distributed hundreds of Hypersonic Sound systems, which it integrates with its plasma video screens for specialty applications. He says that department stores, banks, and museum exhibitors are using the technology to beam sound at customers and visitors in particular areas. “It has huge potential,” Beesley says. The main limitation of the system, he adds, is its price. “It’s pretty much hand-built right now,” he says, at a cost of about $1,000 per unit. “We’re looking at various industrial designs to make it cheaper and easier to produce.” The goal is a price point of less than $100 per installation. Daimler’s Edgar says a similar price point is essential to making directional-sound technology competitive with traditional car-stereo speakers.

At $1,000 to $2,000 per system, Pompei’s Audio Spotlight suffers from the same high-cost, low-production-quantity syndrome. Early customers such as Steelcase, which is testing it for office environments, and Cisco, which has installed it in corporate lobbies, have only purchased a few units each.

As ATC and Holosonic race to transform their systems from high-end curiosities to household staples, Norris says he is relying on his patents to protect his intellectual property in the marketplace. On that front, he appears to have the edge on Pompei. Norris has about 20 issued patents covering various aspects of directional-sound technology, and he says that 20 additional ones are pending. Pompei says he has about a dozen patents pending, including two key ones, but only one that has been issued so far.

Given the similarity in the technologies and visions of Pompei and Norris, the shouting match is likely to get louder. The one thing the two inventors can agree on is that directional sound has real long-term opportunities, especially when it comes to displacing the ubiquitous loudspeaker, invented more than 80 years ago. Even the best loudspeakers, they agree, are subject to distortion, and their omnidirectional sound is annoying to people in the vicinity who don’t wish to listen. What remains to be seen is which, if either, of these two inventors will become the Alexander Graham Bell of directional sound, and which will become the Elisha Gray.

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