15:17
TED2004

Woody Norris: Hypersonic sound and other inventions

Filmed:

Woody Norris shows off two of his inventions that treat sound in new ways, and talks about his untraditional approach to inventing and education. As he puts it: "Almost nothing has been invented yet." So -- what's next?

- Inventor
Woody Norris is a serial inventor of electronics, tools and cutting-edge sonic equipment -- such as the LRAD acoustic cannon. Full bio

I became an inventor by accident.
00:18
I was out of the air force in 1956. No, no, that's not true:
00:20
I went in in 1956, came out in 1959,
00:25
was working at the University of Washington,
00:28
and I came up with an idea, from reading a magazine article,
00:30
for a new kind of a phonograph tone arm.
00:32
Now, that was before cassette tapes, C.D.s, DVDs --
00:35
any of the cool stuff we've got now.
00:38
And it was an arm that,
00:40
instead of hinging and pivoting as it went across the record,
00:42
went straight: a radial, linear tracking tone arm.
00:46
And it was the hardest invention I ever made, but it got me started,
00:50
and I got really lucky after that.
00:54
And without giving you too much of a tirade,
00:56
I want to talk to you about an invention I brought with me today:
00:58
my 44th invention. No, that's not true either.
01:01
Golly, I'm just totally losing it.
01:05
My 44th patent; about the 15th invention.
01:07
I call this hypersonic sound.
01:10
I'm going to play it for you in a couple minutes,
01:13
but I want to make an analogy before I do
01:15
to this.
01:17
I usually show this hypersonic sound and people will say,
01:20
That's really cool, but what's it good for?
01:23
And I say, What is the light bulb good for?
01:26
Sound, light: I'm going to draw the analogy.
01:29
When Edison invented the light bulb, pretty much looked like this.
01:32
Hasn't changed that much.
01:35
Light came out of it in every direction.
01:37
Before the light bulb was invented,
01:40
people had figured out how to put a reflector behind it,
01:42
focus it a little bit;
01:45
put lenses in front of it,
01:47
focus it a little bit better.
01:49
Ultimately we figured out how to make things like lasers
01:51
that were totally focused.
01:54
Now, think about where the world would be today
01:57
if we had the light bulb,
01:59
but you couldn't focus light;
02:03
if when you turned one on it just went wherever it wanted to.
02:05
That's the way loudspeakers pretty much are.
02:10
You turn on the loudspeaker,
02:13
and after almost 80 years of having those gadgets,
02:15
the sound just kind of goes where it wants.
02:18
Even when you're standing in front of a megaphone,
02:21
it's pretty much every direction.
02:23
A little bit of differential, but not much.
02:25
If the light bulb was the way the speaker is,
02:28
and you couldn't focus or sharpen the edges or define it,
02:31
we wouldn't have that, or movies in general,
02:34
or computers, or T.V. sets,
02:39
or C.D.s, or DVDs -- and just go down the list
02:42
of what the importance is
02:45
of being able to focus light.
02:47
Now, after almost 80 years of having sound,
02:50
I thought it was about time that we figure out
02:54
a way to put sound where you want to.
02:56
I have a couple of units.
03:00
That guy there was made for a demo I did yesterday early in the day
03:02
for a big car maker in Detroit who wants to put them in a car --
03:04
small version, over your head --
03:07
so that you can actually get binaural sound in a car.
03:09
What if I could aim sound the way I aim light?
03:13
I got this waterfall I recorded in my back yard.
03:18
Now, you're not going to hear a thing unless it hits you.
03:21
Maybe if I hit the side wall it will bounce around the room.
03:25
(Applause)
03:28
The sound is being made right next to your ears. Is that cool?
03:31
(Applause)
03:35
Because I have some limited time, I'll cut it off for a second,
03:43
and tell you about how it works and what it's good for.
03:45
Course, like light, it's great to be able to put sound
03:48
to highlight a clothing rack, or the cornflakes, or the toothpaste,
03:51
or a talking plaque in a movie theater lobby.
03:54
Sony's got an idea -- Sony's our biggest customers right now.
03:57
They tried this back in the '60s
04:01
and were too smart, and so they gave up.
04:03
But they want to use it -- seriously.
04:05
There's a mix an inventor has to have.
04:08
You have to be kind of smart,
04:10
and though I did not graduate from college doesn't mean I'm stupid,
04:12
because you cannot be stupid and do very much in the world today.
04:16
Too many other smart people out there. So.
04:19
I just happened to get my education in a little different way.
04:21
I'm not at all against education.
04:23
I think it's wonderful; I think sometimes people,
04:26
when they get educated, lose it:
04:28
they get so smart they're unwilling to look at things that they know better than.
04:31
And we're living in a great time right now,
04:35
because almost everything's being explored anew.
04:38
I have this little slogan that I use a lot, which is:
04:41
virtually nothing --
04:44
and I mean this honestly --
04:46
has been invented yet.
04:48
We're just starting.
04:50
We're just starting to really discover the laws of nature and science and physics.
04:52
And this is, I hope, a little piece of it.
04:56
Sony's got this vision back -- to get myself on track --
04:58
that when you stand in the checkout line in the supermarket,
05:02
you're going to watch a new T.V. channel.
05:05
They know that when you watch T.V. at home,
05:07
because there are so many choices
05:09
you can change channels, miss their commercials.
05:11
A hundred and fifty-one million people every day stand in the line at the supermarket.
05:15
Now, they've tried this a couple years ago and it failed,
05:20
because the checker gets tired of hearing the same message
05:22
every 20 minutes, and reaches out, turns off the sound.
05:24
And, you know, if the sound isn't there, the sale typically isn't made.
05:28
For instance, like, when you're on an airplane, they show the movie,
05:31
you get to watch it for free;
05:34
when you want to hear the sound, you pay.
05:36
And so ABC and Sony have devised this new thing
05:38
where when you step in the line in the supermarket --
05:42
initially it'll be Safeways. It is Safeways;
05:45
they're trying this in three parts of the country right now --
05:48
you'll be watching TV.
05:50
And hopefully they'll be sensitive
05:52
that they don't want to offend you with just one more outlet.
05:54
But what's great about it, from the tests that have been done, is,
05:56
if you don't want to hear it,
05:59
you take about one step to the side and you don't hear it.
06:01
So, we create silence as much as we create sound.
06:04
ATMs that talk to you; nobody else hears it.
06:08
Sit in bed, two in the morning, watch TV;
06:11
your spouse, or someone, is next to you, asleep;
06:13
doesn't hear it, doesn't wake up.
06:17
We're also working on noise canceling things like snoring, noise from automobiles.
06:19
I have been really lucky with this technology:
06:25
all of a sudden as it is ready, the world is ready to accept it.
06:29
They have literally beat a path to our door.
06:34
We've been selling it since about last September, October,
06:36
and it's been immensely gratifying.
06:39
If you're interested in what it costs -- I'm not selling them today --
06:42
but this unit, with the electronics and everything,
06:44
if you buy one, is around a thousand bucks.
06:46
We expect by this time next year,
06:48
it'll be hundreds, a few hundred bucks, to buy it.
06:50
It's not any more pricey than regular electronics.
06:52
Now, when I played it for you, you didn't hear the thunderous bass.
06:56
This unit that I played goes from about 200 hertz to above the range of hearing.
07:00
It's actually emitting ultrasound -- low-level ultrasound --
07:05
that's about 100,000 vibrations per second.
07:09
And the sound that you're hearing,
07:12
unlike a regular speaker on which all the sound is made on the face,
07:14
is made out in front of it, in the air.
07:18
The air is not linear, as we've always been taught.
07:21
You turn up the volume just a little bit --
07:25
I'm talking about a little over 80 decibels --
07:27
and all of a sudden the air begins to corrupt signals you propagate.
07:30
Here's why: the speed of sound is not a constant. It's fairly slow.
07:34
It changes with temperature and with barometric pressure.
07:39
Now, imagine, if you will, without getting too technical,
07:43
I'm making a little sine wave here in the air.
07:46
Well, if I turn up the amplitude too much,
07:49
I'm having an effect on the pressure,
07:52
which means during the making of that sine wave,
07:55
the speed at which it is propagating is shifting.
07:58
All of audio as we know it
08:01
is an attempt to be more and more perfectly linear.
08:04
Linearity means higher quality sound.
08:08
Hypersonic sound is exactly the opposite:
08:12
it's 100 percent based on non-linearity.
08:16
An effect happens in the air, it's a corrupting effect of the sound --
08:20
the ultrasound in this case -- that's emitted,
08:25
but it's so predictable
08:28
that you can produce very precise audio out of that effect.
08:30
Now, the question is, where's the sound made?
08:34
Instead of being made on the face of the cone,
08:37
it's made at literally billions of little independent points
08:39
along this narrow column in the air,
08:43
and so when I aim it towards you,
08:47
what you hear is made right next to your ears.
08:49
I said we can shorten the column,
08:52
we can spread it out to cover the couch.
08:55
I can put it so that one ear hears one speaker,
08:57
the other ear hears the other. That's true binaural sound.
09:00
When you listen to stereo on your home system,
09:04
your both ears hear both speakers.
09:07
Turn on the left speaker sometime
09:10
and notice you're hearing it also in your right ear.
09:12
So, the stage is more restricted --
09:14
the sound stage that's supposed to spread out in front of you.
09:17
Because the sound is made in the air along this column,
09:20
it does not follow the inverse square law,
09:23
which says it drops off about two thirds
09:25
every time you double the distance:
09:28
6dB every time you go from one meter, for instance, to two meters.
09:30
That means you go to a rock concert or a symphony,
09:35
and the guy in the front row gets the same level
09:38
as the guy in the back row, now, all of a sudden.
09:40
Isn't that terrific?
09:42
So, we've been, as I say, very successful, very lucky,
09:45
in having companies catch the vision of this,
09:48
from cars -- car makers who want to put a stereo system in the front for the kids,
09:51
and a separate system in the back --
09:55
oh, no, the kids aren't driving today.
09:57
(Laughter)
09:59
I was seeing if you were listening.
10:00
Actually, I haven't had breakfast yet.
10:02
A stereo system in the front for mom and dad,
10:04
and maybe there's a little DVD player in the back for the kids,
10:08
and the parents don't want to be bothered with that,
10:11
or their rap music or whatever.
10:13
So, again, this idea of being able to put sound anywhere you want to
10:15
is really starting to catch on.
10:18
It also works for transmitting and communicating data.
10:20
It also works five times better underwater.
10:24
We've got the military -- have just deployed some of these into Iraq,
10:27
where you can put fake troop movements
10:31
quarter of a mile away on a hillside.
10:34
(Laughter)
10:36
Or you can whisper in the ear of a supposed terrorist some Biblical verse.
10:39
(Laughter)
10:43
I'm serious. And they have these infrared devices
10:45
that can look at their countenance,
10:51
and see a fraction of a degree Kelvin in temperature shift
10:54
from 100 yards away when they play this thing.
10:58
And so, another way of hopefully determining who's friendly and who isn't.
11:01
We make a version with this which puts out 155 decibels.
11:05
Pain is 120.
11:10
So it allows you to go nearly a mile away and communicate with people,
11:12
and there can be a public beach just off to the side,
11:16
and they don't even know it's turned on.
11:18
We sell those to the military presently for about 70,000 dollars,
11:20
and they're buying them as fast as we can make them.
11:24
We put it on a turret with a camera, so that when they shoot at you,
11:26
you're over there, and it's there.
11:31
I have a bunch of other inventions.
11:34
I invented a plasma antenna, to shift gears.
11:36
Looked up at the ceiling of my office one day --
11:38
I was working on a ground-penetrating radar project --
11:41
and my physicist CEO came in and said, "We have a real problem.
11:45
We're using very short wavelengths.
11:49
We've got a problem with the antenna ringing.
11:52
When you run very short wavelengths,
11:54
like a tuning fork the antenna resonates,
11:56
and there's more energy coming out of the antenna
11:58
than there is the backscatter from the ground
12:00
that we're trying to analyze, taking too much processing."
12:02
I says, "Why don't we make an antenna that only exists when you want it?
12:05
Turn it on; turn it off.
12:10
That's a fluorescent tube refined."
12:13
I just sold that for a million and a half dollars, cash.
12:18
I took it back to the Pentagon after it got declassified,
12:21
when the patent issued, and told the people back there about it,
12:24
and they laughed, and then I took them back a demo and they bought.
12:28
(Laughter)
12:30
Any of you ever wore a Jabber headphone -- the little cell headphones?
12:32
That's my invention. I sold that for seven million dollars.
12:37
Big mistake: it just sold for 80 million dollars two years ago.
12:39
I actually drew that up on a little crummy Mac computer
12:43
in my attic at my house,
12:46
and one of the many designs which they have now
12:49
is still the same design I drew way back when.
12:52
So, I've been really lucky as an inventor.
12:54
I'm the happiest guy you're ever going to meet.
12:57
And my dad died before he realized anybody in the family
13:01
would maybe, hopefully, make something out of themselves.
13:06
You've been a great audience. I know I've jumped all over the place.
13:09
I usually figure out what my talk is when I get up in front of a group.
13:11
Let me give you, in the last minute,
13:14
one more quick demo of this guy,
13:16
for those of you that haven't heard it.
13:19
Can never tell if it's on.
13:22
If you haven't heard it, raise your hand.
13:24
Getting it over there?
13:29
Get the cameraman.
13:32
Yeah, there you go.
13:35
I've got a Coke can opening that's right in your head; that's really cool.
13:37
Thank you once again.
13:40
Appreciate it very much.
13:42

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About the Speaker:

Woody Norris - Inventor
Woody Norris is a serial inventor of electronics, tools and cutting-edge sonic equipment -- such as the LRAD acoustic cannon.

Why you should listen

When Woody Norris won the Lemelson-MIT Prize in 2005, his official prize bio called him "a classic independent inventor ... self-educated, self-funded and self-motivated." His mind seems to race toward things the world needs, though we don't know it yet: a nonlethal acoustic weapon that has been used to ward off pirates, a bone-induction headset, radar that can scan the human body, a tapeless tape recorder ...

Norris' educational background is a key to his restless mind. He is not quite "self-educated" -- he's taken many classes, but always at his own speed and in his own style, studying the things he knew he wanted to know and working closely with professors. Ironically, it's a model that cutting-edge colleges are now embracing.

His inventions have seeded several public companies. Recently he has been working on the AirScooter -- a sort of propeller-powered counterpart to the Moller SkyCar.

More profile about the speaker
Woody Norris | Speaker | TED.com