Why you might soon think you're hearing things

Ottawa Citizen
May. 14, 2008

A technology that beams sound directly into people's ears has advertisers salivating, but as Vito Pilieci writes, critics fear yet another invasion of privacy.

After more than a decade of development, technology that directs a beam of sound straight into a person's eardrums is ready for primetime.

The new technology has attracted some critics who worry that it gives advertisers far too much power to invade a consumer's privacy when promoting their products where shoppers congregate.

Hypersonic sound technology aims to eventually make blaring loudspeakers and broadcast marketing messages obsolete in stores and malls.

In December, the A&E Television Network used the technology on a busy downtown Manhattan street to promote its show, Paranormal State. The new program is about ghost hunters who investigate haunted locations, and people walking by an advertisement heard voices whispering, "Who's there? What's that? It's not your imagination."

The technology works by beaming waves of hypersonic sound at a pitch that is undetectable by the human ear. The waves continue until they smash into an object such as a person's body. The waves then slow, mix and re-create the original audio broadcast. If the person steps out of the waves, they are no longer obstructed and are rendered inaudible.

The promotion was an enormous success. New Yorkers heard about the freaky advertisement and flocked to its location to experience it first-hand.

"The technology really basically made it seem like the sounds were coming from inside your head," said Lori Peterzell, vice-president of marketing for A&E.

"It was totally a freak-with-your-mind experience. It was a great way of building buzz about a show that didn't exist yet."

Using the technology, marketers can target an audio message at one person in a crowd of hundreds, leaving everyone around that person unaware.

"If you really wanted to bother a lot of people and inject sound into a lot of people at once, the best way to do that is with a loudspeaker. Everyone hears it. This prevents the noise, it doesn't add to it," said Joseph Pompei, founder of Holosonic Research Labs, Inc., one of two companies in the hypersonic sound business.

Mr. Pompei's company manufactured the technology that A&E used. "That's the main thrust of this technology -- delivering sound to a very specific area and preventing noise from going elsewhere."

For example, nightclub-goers could hear music delivered through hypersonic methods, while people living nearby or those passing by the club would not hear anything. Similarly, an ambulance using a hypersonic sound siren wouldn't disturb households -- only cars in front of the ambulance would be able to hear the siren.

While more high-profile uses of the technology may still be a few years away, Mr. Pompei said the A&E marketing initiative has led to a deluge of calls from marketers interested in trying it out.

His company's technology is in use at the New York City Public Library, where a giant wall of TVs constantly broadcasts news for people to watch. The hypersonic technology allows people to hear the broadcast if they stand in front of the TV, while those wandering through the library's aisles hear nothing.

The technology has also been used at the Tate Gallery in London, where units broadcast an audio tour of Picasso paintings without disturbing others who would rather not listen to the narration. In Canada, Mr. Pompei's technology is used at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta as well as the Royal Alberta Museum.

Marketing experts say that with interest in the technology ballooning, consumers are likely to soon be bombarded with messages from pop machines, automated tellers or mall vendors informing shoppers of the latest sales.

"It's a tool well worth investigating," said Ken Hardy, a professor of marketing with the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. "People are substantially suggestible. I think this has quite a bit of potential. The directionality makes it much more acceptable."

But the technology scares some consumer groups, including the U.S.-based Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics, which is raising legal questions about what rights people have when it comes to being forced to listen to audio broadcasts in public.

"While most people are capable of shutting their eyes and thereby blocking out external images, it is not so easy to shut one's ears," says the group's website.

"If the First Amendment (regarding freedom of speech) blocks the government from putting words in a person's mouth, does it also block the government from putting words in a person's head?"

Mr. Hardy believes the concerns may be a bit overblown. He said as long as the ads are tasteful and low-key -- they can't feature people shouting at consumers or beam loud music into their heads -- they will likely be well received. Consumers are already bombarded with audio advertisements and hypersonic technology could help to alleviate some of that noise, according to Mr. Hardy.

Some businesses have already opened their arms to the new technology. American Technology Corp., the other maker of hypersonic audio technology, has seen its products installed by retailers across the United States.

U.S. grocery stores such as Kroger and Myers have installed hypersonic sound technology along with big-screen TVs to entertain customers.

"Our technology allows you to put these at checkout counters and other locations on site so you can have several LCD flat panels coupled with the audio track and just have the sound go to the customer and not distract the employees who don't want to listen to the same audio over and over for eight hours," said Robert Putnam, an ATC spokesman.

"You will be able to have several different messages and not sound like a video arcade when you walk through the front door."

Mr. Putnam said his company is also in talks to provide the technology to banks, so they can integrate it into automated tellers and provide customers with information updates or assistance.

Mr. Putnam said American Technology would like to see its technology built into everyday items such as computers, portable media players and even cars, making headphones and speakers obsolete.

"Price is still the key to get this into automobiles and other areas, the price has to come down. We are on track to do that," he said. "I still think we are a couple of years away from really breaking it out."

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