Getting an Earful

Targeted audio technology is here. And that’s a good thing?

It sounds too good to be true: After spending most of my adult life trying to get inside consumers’ heads, I now find out that next-generation audio technology can do it for me.

I recently chanced upon a New York Times story about Elwood G. Norris, a prolific San Diego inventor who has created a device that can deliver audio to specific individuals in a crowd. Not in their ears, mind you. In their brains.

According to the article, HyperSonic Sound (HSS) technology directs sound much as a laser beam directs light. Sound waves are converted to a beam of ultrasound, or even a spherical sound “bubble,” that can be directed to specific listeners in its path, where it is converted back into audible frequencies. A slight alteration in the direction of the beam can cause the audio to rove around from ear to ear, in what can only be described as the ultimate in surround sound. You hear a sonata, a news flash, a product pitch that feels like it’s coming from inside your skull. The person standing next to you doesn’t hear a thing.

This technology promises to transform the way we interact with audio. Imagine a family room in which little Joey sits on the sofa playing a Matrix DVD at full blast while Mom listens to the soothing sounds of James Taylor from her easy chair just two feet away. Or imagine message bubbles in every aisle of a grocery store, each containing an audio message pitching everything from ginkgo biloba dietary supplements to Depends undergarments.

And just think of the things HSS could do in the hands of the perfidious pranksters at The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, America’s Funniest Home Videos or Jackass. (“Did you hear that voice?” “Um, no.”)

HSS is for real. It was recently awarded the grand prize for new inventions of 2002 by Popular Science magazine, beating out the egregiously hyped Segway scooter. Meanwhile, the Times reports that marketers including Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Pepsi and Coke and a host of international museums have lined up to talk with Norris about his technology. And by sometime next year, more than five million soda machines in Japan will be outfitted with HSS.

Which all sounds like a marketer’s dream come true. But as it turns out, HSS also has other, less benign applications.

The U.S. military has already conducted experiments with HSS to create something called High Intensity Directed Acoustics. HIDA can be used to give verbal warnings to intruders—or it can be used as a weapon, delivering 120-decibel sounds that are, as the Times article points out, “as physically disabling as shrapnel.”

And that’s not all. Apparently, the sound of a crying baby, played backward at high decibels and mixed with other tones, can elicit instant vertigo and violent nausea. If that isn’t scary enough, what happens when they start experimenting with sound bites from Dr. Phil?

And while Mary Hart can breathe a sigh of relief knowing her voice isn’t the only one that can cause seizures, this whole matter had me hearing a little voice (hopefully my own) asking some pesky questions:

In a world where we’re already bombarded by mass-mediated messages splattered across everything from subway terminals to bathroom stalls, should the human brain be declared off-limits?

At what point does audio promotion end and breaking-and-entering begin?

And when, exactly, is a technology that can debilitate terrorists and enemy soldiers safe to use in the frozen-food aisle?

New technologies like HSS present some vexing dilemmas. On the one hand, the promise of speaking directly to consumers at the point of purchase is tempting, perhaps all-trumping. On the other hand, the prospect of invading minds to sell Hamburger Helper is enough to make anyone want to hurl.