Edgelings

A Sound Opportunity

A SOUND OPPORTUNITY by Scott Budman

Here in Silicon Valley, we’re famous for exporting innovative products.  Sometimes, though, the coolest things in the world come to us.

About a week ago, Valley VCs, entrepreneurs, big companies, and a few reporters got a first peek at something truly disruptive in the world of sound technology.  For someone like myself, who has long been fascinated with the early days of music, recording, and sound systems, this was a revelation.

Think about the speakers you have in your house.  The ones that pump out music, movies, TV and computer sound.  Now divide by about a hundred thousand.  That’s about how much space you’ll eventually be saving, thanks to some amazing speaker technology that’s just about to hit our shores.

A Taiwanese research company called ITRI (pronounced “ee-tree”) has created a speaker literally the thickness of a piece of paper.  In fact, a super-thin membrane on the inside is coated with paper, so the effect is that you’re hearing sound .. from paper.

Here’s what it looks like in action:  www.qik.com/budman
ITRI holed itself up in a small Redwood City hotel room, inviting people to check out what it calls “FleXpeaker.”  Powered by your iPod, stereo, or anything that has a plug-in, FleXpeaker broadcasts with pretty decent sound for something that thin.

The goal, according to ITRI scientists, is to eventually fit snugly into your car, laptop, TV, even on entire walls of movie theatres.  Talk about surround sound.  It’s a tech cliche to say the possibilities are endless, but think about how much planning and negotiating you and your friends put into where to put stereo equipment, and imagine just throwing your speakers up onto a wall, or hanging them from the ceiling.

Not a bad way to save space, and start conversations at the same time.

Like paper, the FleXpeaker can be folded, rolled up, even cut with scissors to fit in whertever you want it to.  It uses very little power, so ITRI can stake its claim to green tech as well.  After the Wall Street Journal took a listen, it gave ITRI its Technology Innovation Award in Consumer Electronics, beating out hundreds of much bigger, well-known companies.


So is the paper speaker ready to take over the world?  Not yet.  There are signs that, like most new technologies, the FleXpeaker still has a few kinks to work out.  The sound is not perfect, and ITRI admits it’s still trying to build in a deeper low end, the kind we’re used to hearing from our speakers.  Also, the company has a small communications problem:  Its Vice President in charge of facing the press is brilliant and extremely well-spoken, but difficult to understand, so most soundbites, I noticed, were kept short, even in newspaper coverage.  That will have to change as FleXpeaker begins its next World (and potential investor) Tour.

But there are plans for better sound, even wireless pickup, from the speaker, and that’s from ITRI’s labs alone.  Imagine what the likes of Dolby Systems, or THX, or Bose could do with this if it got its R&D hands on it.  That’s one of the things that makes this speaker so exciting:  It’s been developed very well, and yet it’s just getting started.

ITRI didn’t just come to Silicon Valley to show off.  It came to show off, get noticed, and attract investment.  Company officials are, for now, understandably coy about who’s interested, but they did say they’ll be back.  And my guess is the hotel room will be even bigger next time.

Much of the technology we use from companies like Apple, Cisco, and others come from outside the companies themselves.  It’s why big tech firms buy up smaller tech firms, what Carol Bartz (while CEO of Autodesk) once described to me as a “Farm system.  They make the cool stuff, we pay for it, and everybody wins.”

Sometimes it’s technology from down the street that gets scooped up; sometimes it comes from halfway around the world.  It’s the technology ecosystem, and it’s about to sound even better than before, without taking up much of your space.

[For more Scott Budman tech stories, please visit www.nbcbayarea.com.]