By using FM radio, Heath got around another pesky problem: patents. Heath is not the only one who has thought that wireless music sharing would be a good idea, and some researchers already hold patents on ideas similar to hers. In 2005, researchers at the MIT Media Lab Europe patented their own system, which involved wirelessly sharing music using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth (a wireless communication scheme used for short-range data transfer between digital devices).
Mike O’Malley, now a program manager for Microsoft, built a similar device while he was a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst last year. His scheme used Bluetooth to transmit music.
O’Malley thinks that Heath’s product is interesting because it gets around a problem he encountered during his research. Unlike O’Malley’s system, NoeStringsAttached can broadcast to multiple devices at once. O’Malley says he also appreciates the fact that it can work with different kinds of devices.
“That’s the compelling part about it,” he says. “Any device–whether it’s a Zune, iPod, or Creative Zen [player]–can share the same music.”
Microsoft’s Zune player also lets owners wirelessly share songs, but the recipient only gets three plays or three days with the track–whichever comes first. And songs can only be shared from one Zune to another.
FM radio doesn’t offer the same sound quality as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, but Heath believes that people won’t mind. She notes that the old-fashioned radio signal is still a popular broadcast medium.
“I think the quality is good enough for them, especially when you consider the price,” says Heath.
Now CEO of her own company, Passive Devices, Heath hopes to study business in college. She has already submitted a patent for her idea of broadcasting to small spaces and plans to submit more. (The Heath family is still based in San Francisco, but the company is officially registered in Denver because Colorado allows teens to write checks.)
A NoeStringsAttached kit, which includes two transmitter/receiver units and a set of headphones, costs $59.99. Powered by a single AAA battery, each unit can transmit tunes for up to 9 hours or act as a receiver for approximately 20 hours.
Right now the kits, which are manufactured in China, can only be purchased through eBay. Heath declines to say how many kits she has sold so far, but she says that an updated version of the device should be in stores by Christmas.