A San Francisco teenager has invented a gadget that turns iPods into miniature radio stations, broadcasting beats to nearby devices. The system, called NoeStringsAttached, uses FM radio waves to transmit music from a portable music player to any other specially equipped player within 15 feet.
The NoeStringsAttached system consists of two identical units. Each one plugs into the standard headphone jack found on most MP3, CD, and tape players. A user selects one of five radio frequencies and then opts to transmit or receive music by flicking a switch. (The five frequencies were specially selected because they are not often used by traditional broadcasters, but in theory, the device could pick up FM radio stations.)
Listeners don’t even need a music player if they just want to tune in to someone else’s music. All they need is a pair of headphones plugged into a NoeStringsAttached unit.
“It’s basically like you’re listening to a radio with headphones,” says NoeStringsAttached inventor Kristyn Heath.
The 16-year-old says she made the gadget so that she could share her favorite songs with her friends. Heath tried sharing ear buds, but that requires two people standing relatively still and very close together. Even using an adapter to plug two sets of headphones into one iPod wasn’t ideal, Heath says, because the cables “only go so far.” Heath was sure there had to be a way to share her music with lots of friends at once without being tangled up in wires or blasting her music through speakers, forcing everyone to listen to the same thing.
Three years ago Heath turned to her father, Allen Heath, for help. He says it took Kristyn six months to convince him of her idea. “I did not buy it at first,” says Allen, who has more than 30 years of experience in information technology. “We had a number of conversations over time at the dinner table about wireless technologies, and she then formalized her idea in writing with a descriptive drawing.” Kristyn says they decided to take a low-tech approach and use FM radio to transmit the music because they wanted to keep costs down. Other wireless options, such as Wi-Fi (a communication protocol used to wirelessly connect laptops to networks), would have made the product too pricey for their target audience of 15-to-22-year-olds. “Most people my age don’t make that much money,” she says. “We want to keep it affordable.”
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.