Here You Hear It, There You Don't

Will directed sound turn a San Diego company into a star?

Imagine standing in the frozen-food aisle of your supermarket, staring at a tub of your favorite double-fudge brownie ice cream. Suddenly, a voice comes out of nowhere to tell you there's a two-for-one sale on that very treat. But only you hear the message. In fact, the guy studying the cookie-dough choices 2 feet away is listening to a different ad--which you can't hear.

This scenario would be right at home in the dreamlike ad sequences of Steven Spielberg's Minority Report. But so-called directed sound may soon be accosting consumers in all kinds of real-life settings. A small San Diego company, American Technology Corp. (ATC), has already begun shipping a product called the HyperSonic Sound system, which uses inaudible ultrasonic waves to create vibrant sound out of thin air. Its inventor, Elwood G. "Woody" Norris, believes it could be used in everything from military communications systems to home electronics. "What if you could watch TV in bed at 1 a.m.," he muses, "and aim the audio just at yourself, so your sleeping spouse hears nothing?"

Critics gripe that Norris has been lobbing "what ifs" like this at anyone who would listen for much of the past decade. Norris, 64, is a lifelong inventor whose creations include a hands-free mobile-phone earpiece that he sold for $5 million to San Diego-based JABRA Corp. in 1992. But in trying to turn HyperSonic into reality, he has burned through $40 million of investors' money--including more than $700,000 from his own pocket in the past two years alone. He hit one snag after another, prompting Wall Street to all but abandon him. ATC's stock has dropped from $13 a share in early 2000 to around $3.

Norris is so determined to get Hy-perSonic out of the starting gate that he vows to pour in more of his own money if need be. On Feb. 6, he even fired himself as CEO. Norris will stay on as chairman, and his old job will go to James Irish, a marketing vet whose experience includes launching products for Clorox, Lever Brothers, and News Corp. Irish says he didn't have to think twice about joining ATC. "The technology just blew me away," he says.

What's unusual is not the sound itself, but rather the way it can be controlled. Sound waves that humans can hear are unruly: They ripple outward in ever-widening rings and fade quickly as they float away from their source. The ultrasonic frequencies utilized by ATC's systems are higher than what humans, or even dogs, can hear. These waves of energy interact with the air, creating audible sound that can be made to emanate from whatever surface they hit. Point the hypersonic unit at a wall, and the sound will come from the wall. Point it at a person, and he'll hear it as clearly as if he were listening to music through headphones. The sound can be shaped into a narrow beam that can be shot from a distance of up to 150 yards, and will radiate out just 5 or 6 inches in diameter at the farthest point.

Norris says over 100 companies--including retail chains, restaurants, and carmakers--are evaluating ATC's system, which sells for $300 to $749, depending on the volume of the order and other factors. General Dynamics Corp., which helped fund ATC through the development process, has already bought and installed several units on two Navy aircraft carriers, including the new USS Winston S. Churchill. One device is perched just above the captain's chair. "The bridge gets pretty noisy, but with this thing aimed right at the captain, he can hear important messages without headphones," says Kenneth Winter, manager of strategic technologies at Bath Iron Works Corp., a shipbuilding division of General Dynamics.

The military is testing a second ATC invention to blast loud warnings at approaching vessels from 500 yards away. Unlike the HyperSonic system, this uses traditional sound. It narrows the scope and direction of the warning through an array of 85 tiny speakers, each of which emits sound in timed bursts. The result: What is a mere whisper to the soldiers standing behind the sound's source is incredibly loud to a person in the speaker's direct path.

The same technology might be used as a nonlethal weapon someday. Crank the volume up to 155 decibels, and you can rattle an enemy's inner ear so severely that he'll fall to his knees with an instant migraine. In theory, such sounds may be tuned to produce other reactions, including vomiting and diarrhea. Such weapons have long been the dream of researchers, but making them work has been a bear. "The trick is controlling the sound," says John B. Alexander, a former U.S. Army colonel and nonlethal-weapons researcher. "ATC has made some big advances there."

Maybe so, but not without great pain to the inventor. An early version of the HyperSonic Sound system, for example, was way too soft to be heard clearly, forcing Norris back to the drawing board. Just after the technology was finally perfected and orders started coming in, ATC's contract manufacturer made several flawed units. Norris, meanwhile, developed a reputation as a bit of a fast talker--continually making promises he wasn't quite equipped to keep. "He'd be better off not being so optimistic when he talks to shareholders," says Jerry Polis, a private investor in Las Vegas who has poured more than $1 million into ATC. Norris admits managing Wall Street's expectations has been challenging. "Honestly, it's tough to predict when you're going to have a breakthrough," he says.

The company lost $8.2 million on $1 million in sales in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2002, prompting the company's auditor to attach a "going-concern" warning to ATC's financial statements. CEO Irish says his intention now is to bring some much-needed discipline and credibility to ATC.

To shore up its prospects, ATC recently sold $4 million worth of shares in a private offering. And Irish vows to institute more efficient cost controls, manufacturing, and sales practices. Norris believes pending contracts for its sound technologies will generate more than $5 million in sales over the next year. Early testers of HyperSonic systems include Sony Pictures, fast-food chain Carl's Jr., and Florida Power & Light, which uses them to keep birds from power lines.

With Irish on board and orders starting to trickle in, Norris believes ATC will complete its transition from idealistic startup to a legitimate player in the sound industry. "It was very difficult, but we're finally delivering," Norris says, barely containing his excitement as he gazes at a pile of boxes full of HyperSonic Sound systems. Now he just has to convince customers and investors they can trust the encouraging noises they're hearing from ATC.

By Arlene Weintraub in San Diego

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