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Invisible sound

By Chris Taylor

At the offices of Emo Labs in Waltham, Mass., the receptionist's desk and the meeting rooms look like an afterthought. The real action goes on behind a glass wall in a warehouse space where most of the 15 employees are soldering wires or fiddling with knobs on machines with sine-wave displays. For a visitor used to Silicon Valley startups with programmers staring at screens or frolicking at foosball tables, this is refreshingly old-school stuff.

CEO Jason Carlson points out the testing chamber that his team built by hand from foam and wood. Then he stops and taps at what looks like an ordinary photo frame on a desk.

"Imagine you're in your office and you need to make a conference call," he says. "You can connect your cell phone to this frame using Bluetooth, and suddenly your call is coming from it, clear as a bell. Wouldn't that be cool?"

For the past 80 years, all loudspeakers have been based on roughly the same idea: A magnet creates force that causes a diaphragm to vibrate, producing sound. The quality of the sound varies with speaker size, but modern TV and computer-monitor design has forced speakers to get smaller and smaller. As a result, many tube TVs from the 1970s sound better than modern flat-screen TVs.

In 2001, Lewis Athenas, a loudspeaker designer working for Boston Acoustics, saw that consumers were increasingly playing music on their computers. He was nonplussed by the weedy sound from most desktop speaker systems. Then he discovered that by replacing the speaker magnet with a kind of ceramic known as a piezo actuator, he could make a computer screen act as the diaphragm. Put a thin strip of ceramic down each side of a see-through plastic membrane, and you've got stereo sound.

Athenas went to work in his garage. In 2005 he finished his first working prototype, a wooden frame around a 15-inch monitor. That same year he founded Emo Labs (Emo stands for "edge motion") and raised $15 million from local venture capital firms.

Now just about any electronic device with a screen -- a laptop, a cell phone, the latest and thinnest LED TV -- can also be a speaker. Want better audio in your car? Wait till you hear it coming from your windshield. Like watching movies at home? You'll love it even more when the dialogue actually comes out of the actors' mouths.

At Emo Labs, Carlson played me a DVD of jazz singer Diana Krall performing live in Paris. The music came through loud and clear, with rich bass tones. "Touch it," Carlson urged. "Feel the vibration of the screen. That's what the sound is."

Carlson left the CEO job at Semtech, a semiconductor manufacturer in Camarillo, Calif., and joined Emo Labs in 2006. He wanted to adapt the semiconductor-industry model of producing standardized components and selling them to equipment manufacturers. So Emo spent the next few years testing equipment, getting a toehold in China and Taiwan, and persuading naysayers at the equipment firms.

"I can't tell you how many times we've sat in front of engineers, and they keep asking, 'Where's the sound coming from again?'" says Carlson. "It's like their minds don't want them to believe it."

The company is tight-lipped on pricing and on which electronics giants it has struck deals with. Those companies should make their own announcements in the first half of 2010. (The products will not carry Emo Labs branding.) Carlson says the technology will add about a 10% price premium, so consumers should pay $100 more for a $1,000 TV equipped with Emo's speaker.

Electronics firms have been deep-discounting their products for some time now, and even Carlson admits they are wary of any technology that could drive up the price of their products. Still, given that 160 million flat-panel TVs and 150 million laptops were sold in 2009, even a tiny slice of that market would be lucrative for Emo.

And that's not counting the global loudspeaker business, set to hit $4.2 billion in 2010, according to research firm Electronics.ca. Carlson recently installed conventional speakers throughout his house. Wiring and tearing into walls cost more than the sound equipment, he says. "It would be beautiful if you could just use picture frames in each room," he sighs. "Especially if they were wireless."

To that end, Emo Labs has met with a company 20 miles down the road, near MIT. Its name is WiTricity.

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