Sunday, February 13, 2005

The DSS Duo: Elwood Norris and F. Joseph Pompei

Elwood "Woody" Norris, California sound entrepreneur

George Bernard Shaw once described the works of Mozart as "The only music yet written that would not sound out of place in the mouth of God." Yet even as the mezzo-soprano is about to project the peak solo of Solitudini Amiche, thirty ringtones blaring the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake to Snoop Dogg's Up Jump The Boogie, explode throughout the Met and even the creator himself cannot resist answering the phone. And as disabling as this would be to high-strung, operatic artists and their crusty, consumer-conscious audiences, only two mere mortals, Elwood "Woody" Norris, a technological God from the ever-innovative state of California, and the even more Juno-esque-sounding F. Joseph Pompei, of "Technology Row's" Watertown, MA-based Holosonic Research Labs, have the indisputable solution to this auditory dilemma: Directional, or as it is known in its more Sci-fi-named commercial identity, Hypersonic Sound.

Using an ultrasound transmitter to project a laserlike beam of focused audible sound, HSS enables a listener standing in its pathway in a particular space to tune in to multidimensional waves that only they can hear. Norris and Pompei each assert that their respective version of Directional Sound is the premier source for its commercial marketing and use. Imagine a busload of 25 tourists, each with a transfixed look of satisfaction, listening to separate pieces of music, without screeching walkmans or the use of headphones. Apply this scenario to the dilemma of obnoxious ringtones blaring in public and the mezzo-soprano can finish her Solitudini Amiche solo without incident. But how many audience members apparently mesmerized by the viking-horned vocalist's coloratura are actually listening to her?

Loudspeaker manufacturers, such as Meadowlark Swift, Spendor S5e, and Focal JMIab Cobalt 806, beware! Your commercial days may be numbered! Visualize a crowded convention trade show, the din of meshed noise as speaker systems blat multiple, distorted messages pertaining to products on display (or even lost children separated from parents in the rush of the crowd). Now imagine that tumultuous cacophony replaced by thousands of beams of sound directed concurrently through space yet enabling only those at each display to hear the singular sounds of that exhibit.

HSS founding fathers Norris and Pompei are as focused and yet different as the sound gradients directed by their systems. Norris, a 65-year-old self-styled pioneer and sound savant with no college degree or intricate scientific background, honed his formal education while working as a radar technician in the U.S. Air Force. Earning million of dollars as a maverick inventor who has created various audio devices, such as a hearing-aid-sized FM radio, a line of flash-memory voice recorders and car audio systems, and several models of cell-phone headsets, Norris purports to have been working on HSS systems for the past decade. Persistent, driven, and highly intuitive, Norris claims to have invested $40 million in his research and development of Directional Sound.

Pompei, a 30-year-old academician, with an electrical engineering degree from Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a master's degree in Psychoacoustics from Northwestern University, has worked for the world-famous Bose loudspeaker company in Framingham, MA. and is the creator of the Audio Spotlight System. It was during his educational stint at Northwestern that Pompei began devising ways of converting silent ultrasound into a vehicle for producing audible sound. While working on his PHD at MIT, Pompei developed his HSS system, Holosonic, which works by pointing a spotlight of sound at a human recipient and basically linking them, via the beam, to the sound itself.

The danger of abuse of the developed HSS systems is already evident. "Harrassment Technology", wherein innocent civilians could be subjected to unwanted noises that emanate from the air around them, such as annoying bird calls, or fabricated human voices (such as mock police commands to "pull over" or "Stop or I will shoot!") has already occurred via cruder variations on the same technological theme as Norris and Pompei's accoustical heterodyne.

Pompei, interviewed by author Roland Schulte at the forum on the web says that there are practical advantages to the Hypersound Systems. "The applications that are the most interesting are the utilitarian, the workhorse applications. The most interesting ones are the ones that permit the use of the sound in a place you normally couldn't. That's an interesting concept for people to understand, a nice quiet environment. They want it both ways, a quiet room and a quiet environment, but they still want to add sound without losing the background. The Audio Spotlight lets them do that, which is great for galleries and retail stores and other kind of solutions. I find those applications tremendously interesting."

Does this mean the ultimate end to commercial sound distortion? Will segments of music be shot through the air at concerts to emphasize a guitar riff or a vocal excerpt kaleidoscopically like light shows of yesteryear? If you accompany a friend with certain tastes to a Britney Spears performance and you wish to listen to the sultry tones of Madeleine Peyroux instead, just lean a little to the side and immerse yourself in that invisible beam just to your left. Much better.

F. Joseph Pompei , MIT's Maestro of Directional Sound