While still a student, Joseph Pompei became obsessed with the idea of focused audio: what if you could aim sound at an individual listener the same way you might aim a spotlight at a performer standing center stage? What if you could narrowcast music or speech to a single person, rather than using a speaker to broadcast it to an entire room?
Pompei had been working during his summers as an engineer at Framingham-based Bose Corp. (At age 16, he says he was the youngest engineer Bose had ever hired.) But he says no one at Bose — including founder Amar Bose — thought much would come of Pompei's interest in using ultrasound to "beam" audio through the air. So at 21, Pompei decided to go to MIT to develop the technology at the Media Lab (and earn a PhD.) A decade ago, with $2000 saved from his grad student stipend, he incorporated Holosonic Research Labs, Inc.
I hadn't seen Pompei for six or seven years, so I was eager to hear how he was doing when I ran into him at an event this week at the MIT Faculty Club. His demo, in which he aims one of Holosonics' "Audio Spotlights" at members of the audience to let them hear music that no one else can hear, always sparks smiles. The Spotlights work by generating small wavelength ultrasound that transforms into audible sound as it travels through the air toward a listener in a focused beam. (You can see a fun demo video below, produced by the Science Channel.)
Pompei said he never took money from outside investors, and hasn't regretted that. "We got customer pre-payments for our first few models," he said, most of which were sold to Media Lab sponsors who were "dying to get their hands on the technology." (At one point, he says Bose sent some executives over to look at the technology and see whether they might be able to purchase it or recruit Pompei back to the company, but Pompei says he wasn't interested. A Bose spokesperson didn't return my call seeking a response.) Today, the company has 12 employees at its Watertown HQ, and works with a Hudson company that builds the circuit boards. The devices range in price from $500 to $2000, depending on purchase volume.
Who's buying Audio Spotlights? Initially, it was places like museums and theme parks. But now, Pompei says the growth is in "advertising, retail, and digital signage. You see these LCD screens popping up everywhere, but they mostly don't use sound because of the complaints they'd get if they had speakers turned up high." Two big recent customers include 7-11, which uses Holosonic gear in conjunction with advertising screens in several hundred stores, and T-Mobile, which in Europe uses the company's equipment to focus the sound that comes out of kiosks that sell ringtones, avoiding cacophony.
Eventually, Pompei says he could see the technology being incorporated in consumer television sets. What if you could direct the sound from your bedroom TV so only you heard it, while your partner could sleep? Pompei already uses an Audio Spotlight that way in his house. "We get to share a physical space, but not an acoustical space," he says.
I like the way Pompei positions his business: "We're not in the sound business. We're in the quiet business," he likes to say. "The benefits are seen by people who don't want to hear something."
But the entrepreneurial challenge, he says, has been "building an industry and building a market" in a world where everyone knows that speakers exist, but not everyone has yet heard about his Audio Spotlight.
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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.