Woody Norris

Hypersonic sound and other inventions

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I became an inventor by accident. I was out of the air force in 1956. No, no, that's not true: I went in in 1956, came out in 1959, was working at the University of Washington, and I came up with an idea, from reading a magazine article, for a new kind of a phonograph tone arm. Now, that was before cassette tapes, C.D.s, DVDs — any of the cool stuff we've got now. And it was an arm that, instead of hinging and pivoting as it went across the record, went straight: a radial, linear tracking tone arm. And it was the hardest invention I ever made, but it got me started, and I got really lucky after that.


And without giving you too much of a tirade, I want to talk to you about an invention I brought with me today: my 44th invention. No, that's not true either. Golly, I'm just totally losing it. My 44th patent; about the 15th invention. I call this hypersonic sound. I'm going to play it for you in a couple minutes, but I want to make an analogy before I do to this. I usually show this hypersonic sound and people will say, That's really cool, but what's it good for? And I say, What is the light bulb good for? Sound, light: I'm going to draw the analogy. When Edison invented the light bulb, pretty much looked like this. Hasn't changed that much. Light came out of it in every direction. Before the light bulb was invented, people had figured out how to put a reflector behind it, focus it a little bit; put lenses in front of it, focus it a little bit better. Ultimately we figured out how to make things like lasers that were totally focused.


Now, think about where the world would be today if we had the light bulb, but you couldn't focus light; if when you turned one on it just went wherever it wanted to. That's the way loudspeakers pretty much are. You turn on the loudspeaker, and after almost 80 years of having those gadgets, the sound just kind of goes where it wants. Even when you're standing in front of a megaphone, it's pretty much every direction. A little bit of differential, but not much. If the light bulb was the way the speaker is, and you couldn't focus or sharpen the edges or define it, we wouldn't have that, or movies in general, or computers, or T.V. sets, or C.D.s, or DVDs — and just go down the list of what the importance is of being able to focus light.


Now, after almost 80 years of having sound, I thought it was about time that we figure out a way to put sound where you want to. I have a couple of units. That guy there was made for a demo I did yesterday early in the day for a big car maker in Detroit who wants to put them in a car — small version, over your head — so that you can actually get binaural sound in a car. What if I could aim sound the way I aim light?


I got this waterfall I recorded in my back yard. Now, you're not going to hear a thing unless it hits you. Maybe if I hit the side wall it will bounce around the room. (Applause) The sound is being made right next to your ears. Is that cool? (Applause) Because I have some limited time, I'll cut it off for a second, and tell you about how it works and what it's good for.


Course, like light, it's great to be able to put sound to highlight a clothing rack, or the cornflakes, or the toothpaste, or a talking plaque in a movie theater lobby. Sony's got an idea — Sony's our biggest customers right now. They tried this back in the '60s and were too smart, and so they gave up. But they want to use it — seriously. There's a mix an inventor has to have. You have to be kind of smart, and though I did not graduate from college doesn't mean I'm stupid, because you cannot be stupid and do very much in the world today. Too many other smart people out there. So. I just happened to get my education in a little different way. I'm not at all against education. I think it's wonderful; I think sometimes people, when they get educated, lose it: they get so smart they're unwilling to look at things that they know better than. And we're living in a great time right now, because almost everything's being explored anew. I have this little slogan that I use a lot, which is: virtually nothing — and I mean this honestly — has been invented yet. We're just starting. We're just starting to really discover the laws of nature and science and physics. And this is, I hope, a little piece of it.


Sony's got this vision back — to get myself on track — that when you stand in the checkout line in the supermarket, you're going to watch a new T.V. channel. They know that when you watch T.V. at home, because there are so many choices you can change channels, miss their commercials. A hundred and fifty-one million people every day stand in the line at the supermarket. Now, they've tried this a couple years ago and it failed, because the checker gets tired of hearing the same message every 20 minutes, and reaches out, turns off the sound. And, you know, if the sound isn't there, the sale typically isn't made. For instance, like, when you're on an airplane, they show the movie, you get to watch it for free; when you want to hear the sound, you pay. And so ABC and Sony have devised this new thing where when you step in the line in the supermarket — initially it'll be Safeways. It is Safeways; they're trying this in three parts of the country right now — you'll be watching TV.


And hopefully they'll be sensitive that they don't want to offend you with just one more outlet. But what's great about it, from the tests that have been done, is, if you don't want to hear it, you take about one step to the side and you don't hear it. So, we create silence as much as we create sound. ATMs that talk to you; nobody else hears it. Sit in bed, two in the morning, watch TV; your spouse, or someone, is next to you, asleep; doesn't hear it, doesn't wake up. We're also working on noise canceling things like snoring, noise from automobiles.


I have been really lucky with this technology: all of a sudden as it is ready, the world is ready to accept it. They have literally beat a path to our door. We've been selling it since about last September, October, and it's been immensely gratifying. If you're interested in what it costs — I'm not selling them today — but this unit, with the electronics and everything, if you buy one, is around a thousand bucks. We expect by this time next year, it'll be hundreds, a few hundred bucks, to buy it. It's not any more pricey than regular electronics.


Now, when I played it for you, you didn't hear the thunderous bass. This unit that I played goes from about 200 hertz to above the range of hearing. It's actually emitting ultrasound — low-level ultrasound — that's about 100,000 vibrations per second. And the sound that you're hearing, unlike a regular speaker on which all the sound is made on the face, is made out in front of it, in the air. The air is not linear, as we've always been taught. You turn up the volume just a little bit — I'm talking about a little over 80 decibels — and all of a sudden the air begins to corrupt signals you propagate. Here's why: the speed of sound is not a constant. It's fairly slow. It changes with temperature and with barometric pressure.


Now, imagine, if you will, without getting too technical, I'm making a little sine wave here in the air. Well, if I turn up the amplitude too much, I'm having an effect on the pressure, which means during the making of that sine wave, the speed at which it is propagating is shifting. All of audio as we know it is an attempt to be more and more perfectly linear. Linearity means higher quality sound. Hypersonic sound is exactly the opposite: it's 100 percent based on non-linearity. An effect happens in the air, it's a corrupting effect of the sound — the ultrasound in this case — that's emitted, but it's so predictable that you can produce very precise audio out of that effect.


Now, the question is, where's the sound made? Instead of being made on the face of the cone, it's made at literally billions of little independent points along this narrow column in the air, and so when I aim it towards you, what you hear is made right next to your ears. I said we can shorten the column, we can spread it out to cover the couch. I can put it so that one ear hears one speaker, the other ear hears the other. That's true binaural sound. When you listen to stereo on your home system, your both ears hear both speakers. Turn on the left speaker sometime and notice you're hearing it also in your right ear. So, the stage is more restricted — the sound stage that's supposed to spread out in front of you. Because the sound is made in the air along this column, it does not follow the inverse square law, which says it drops off about two thirds every time you double the distance: 6dB every time you go from one meter, for instance, to two meters. That means you go to a rock concert or a symphony, and the guy in the front row gets the same level as the guy in the back row, now, all of a sudden. Isn't that terrific?


So, we've been, as I say, very successful, very lucky, in having companies catch the vision of this, from cars — car makers who want to put a stereo system in the front for the kids, and a separate system in the back — oh, no, the kids aren't driving today. (Laughter) I was seeing if you were listening. Actually, I haven't had breakfast yet. A stereo system in the front for mom and dad, and maybe there's a little DVD player in the back for the kids, and the parents don't want to be bothered with that, or their rap music or whatever. So, again, this idea of being able to put sound anywhere you want to is really starting to catch on. It also works for transmitting and communicating data. It also works five times better underwater.


We've got the military — have just deployed some of these into Iraq, where you can put fake troop movements quarter of a mile away on a hillside. (Laughter) Or you can whisper in the ear of a supposed terrorist some Biblical verse. (Laughter) I'm serious. And they have these infrared devices that can look at their countenance, and see a fraction of a degree Kelvin in temperature shift from 100 yards away when they play this thing. And so, another way of hopefully determining who's friendly and who isn't. We make a version with this which puts out 155 decibels. Pain is 120. So it allows you to go nearly a mile away and communicate with people, and there can be a public beach just off to the side, and they don't even know it's turned on. We sell those to the military presently for about 70,000 dollars, and they're buying them as fast as we can make them. We put it on a turret with a camera, so that when they shoot at you, you're over there, and it's there.


I have a bunch of other inventions. I invented a plasma antenna, to shift gears. Looked up at the ceiling of my office one day — I was working on a ground-penetrating radar project — and my physicist CEO came in and said, "We have a real problem. We're using very short wavelengths. We've got a problem with the antenna ringing. When you run very short wavelengths, like a tuning fork the antenna resonates, and there's more energy coming out of the antenna than there is the backscatter from the ground that we're trying to analyze, taking too much processing." I says, "Why don't we make an antenna that only exists when you want it? Turn it on; turn it off. That's a fluorescent tube refined." I just sold that for a million and a half dollars, cash. I took it back to the Pentagon after it got declassified, when the patent issued, and told the people back there about it, and they laughed, and then I took them back a demo and they bought. (Laughter)


Any of you ever wore a Jabber headphone — the little cell headphones? That's my invention. I sold that for seven million dollars. Big mistake: it just sold for 80 million dollars two years ago. I actually drew that up on a little crummy Mac computer in my attic at my house, and one of the many designs which they have now is still the same design I drew way back when.


So, I've been really lucky as an inventor. I'm the happiest guy you're ever going to meet. And my dad died before he realized anybody in the family would maybe, hopefully, make something out of themselves. You've been a great audience. I know I've jumped all over the place. I usually figure out what my talk is when I get up in front of a group.


Let me give you, in the last minute, one more quick demo of this guy, for those of you that haven't heard it. Can never tell if it's on. If you haven't heard it, raise your hand. Getting it over there? Get the cameraman. Yeah, there you go. I've got a Coke can opening that's right in your head; that's really cool. Thank you once again. Appreciate it very much.

Woody Norris shows off two of his inventions that use sound in new ways, including the Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD. He talks about his untraditional approach to inventing and education, because, as he puts it: "Almost nothing has been invented yet." So — what's next?

About the speaker
Woody Norris · Inventor

Woody Norris is a serial inventor of electronics, tools and cutting-edge sonic equipment — such as the LRAD acoustic cannon.

Woody Norris is a serial inventor of electronics, tools and cutting-edge sonic equipment — such as the LRAD acoustic cannon.