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By Amanda Onion
As politicians at the Republican National Convention use microphones to make themselves heard from the podium, other sounds in and around the event will be emitted in cutting-edge audio technology. Outside the convention hall, New York City police plan to control protesters using a device that directs sound for up to 1,500 feet in a spotlight-like beam. Meanwhile, a display of former Republican presidents inside the hall will feature campaign speeches that are funneled to listeners through highly focused audio beams.
"These are totally different from the way an ordinary speaker emits sound," said Elwood (Woody) Norris, founder and head of American Technology Corp. of San Diego. "It's like it's inside your head."
Norris, an intrepid entrepreneur who has no college degree but more than 43 patents to his name, invented both the crowd control tool, called the Long Range Acoustical Device (LRAD), and the display audio technology, called HyperSonic Sound (HSS). Both technologies feature unprecedented manipulation of sound, but for very different purposes. And while both technologies have unique, "gee-whiz" factors, some remain uneasy with the idea of using sound to control crowds.
"It produces sound in a way that for most people will be a novel experience, so I think it has potential to create confusion and panic," said Richard Glen Boire, founder of the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics in Davis, Calif. "It can't be identified, it's an invisible force."
In fact, LRAD, which is 33 inches in diameter and looks like a giant spotlight, has been used by the U.S. military in Iraq and at sea as a non-lethal force. In these settings, operators can use the device not only to convey orders, but also as a weapon.
When in weapon mode, LRAD blasts a tightly controlled stream of caustic sound that can be turned up to high enough levels to trigger nausea or possibly fainting. The operators themselves remain unaffected since the noise is contained in its focused beam.
"We've devised a system with a multiplicity of individual speakers that are phased so sound that would normally go off to the side or up or down, cancels out, while sound directly in front is reinforced," Norris explained. "It's kind of like the way a lens magnifies a beam of light." The Department of Defense gave Norris and his team funding to develop LRAD following the 9/11 attacks. The concept is to offer an intermediate tool to warn and ward off attacking combatants before resorting to force.
"Regular bullets don't have volume control on them," said Norris. "With this, you just cause a person's ears to ring."
The NYPD, however, has said they won't be using the $35,000 tool to make people's ears ring, but only as a communication device. "We're only going to use them for safety announcements and directions," said Paul Browne, a police spokesman.
In tests, police have shown how they can convey orders in a normal voice to someone as far as four blocks away. The sound beam is even equipped with a viewfinder so the operator can precisely target the audio by finding a person in cross hairs. Rather than using pure volume to throw sound far, the LRAD reaches distant ears by focusing the audio beam.
This is the second time the device has been used by police -- Miami police also used it during the free-trade conference in that city last year. Despite the NYPD's assurances that they won't use the tool to hurt protesters, Bill Dobbs of United for Peace and Justice, which has planned protests around the convention, has told reporters that the sound system presents "a potential Big Brother nightmare."
Inside the convention center, people will have the chance to experience -- at will -- another of Norris's inventions. A TIME magazine display at the convention will feature speeches of past Republican presidents in tightly controlled beams of HyperSonic Sound (HSS). Viewers can literally step in and out of the display's different listening zones. A similar high-tech display of former Democratic presidents was featured at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July.
HSS works by mixing regular, audible sound with two beams of super high frequency, inaudible sound waves. "Just the way artists mix their paint," says Norris. The resulting ultrasonic sound wave can then be directed out in a tightly controlled beam. Wherever the beam makes contact with air, the air molecules interact in a way that isolates the original audible sound. So if you're standing in front of the ultrasonic sound wave, you can hear the sound. If you're a few inches away, you hear nothing.
This cuts down on ambient noise and gives listeners the somewhat eerie effect that the noise is inside their heads. "We like to say we create silence instead of noise," said Norris. "You don't need to fill the space with a whole cacophony of noise."
The GOP convention display should perk up the ears of some curious attendees, but Norris is most excited about the device's marketing potential.
Already, some Coca-Cola machines in Japan are equipped with the technology so passers-by hear the enticing sound of soda being poured into a glass of ice. And dozens of Safeway supermarkets in California, Colorado and Virginia are testing the technology on patrons waiting in line to pay. Norris' company has also sent out HSS for testing at Wal-Mart and McDonald's. The narrow beams of sound advertise sale items at the store or restaurant and feature promotional material.
Glen Boire argues the concept is annoying and invasive, but Norris counters, "If you don't want to hear it, you can move your head a half foot away and it will go away." Needless to say, it won't be as simple for convention-goers and protesters -- who may wish to tune each other out next week.