Marketers around the world are using innovative audio technology that sends sound in a narrow beam, just like light, making it possible to direct messages right into consumers' ears while they shop or sit in waiting rooms.
The audio spotlight device, created by Holosonic Research Labs Inc. of Watertown, Mass., has been used to hawk everything from cereals in supermarket aisles to glasses at doctor's offices. The messages are often quick and targeted - and a little creepy to the uninitiated.
The flat disk speakers with precision targeting have made sound possible in unlikely places - from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts to the New York Public Library - and are increasingly attractive to merchants trying to improve the shopping experience with a peaceful environment.
Major U.S. companies, including Procter & Gamble Co. and Best Buy Co., are testing the device, but it is already being embraced abroad. Some marketers say it is only a matter of time before the technology takes off here.
Unlike traditional speakers, which broadcast sound in every direction, sound from an audio spotlight speaker can be focused directly at one spot, so no one else can hear it, or projected against a surface so that sound appears to come from the surface itself.
Joseph Pompei, the 33-year-old chief executive of Holosonics, began his career in acoustics while working as an engineer at Bose Corp. in Framingham, Mass. But as the audio industry became fixated on spreading sound everywhere, Pompei wanted to focus on finding ways to direct sound.
He left Bose and developed a prototype of the audio spotlight and started the company in 2000 when he was a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Pompei knows that for some people there is a certain creepy aspect to his technology - and he even delights in making mischief with it. At MIT's Media Lab, Pompei said, he used to stand on a balcony at the top of a five-story atrium and beam sounds of smashing glass to the ground floors as caterers were working at events to make them think they dropped dishes.
For his first demonstration in the campus theater, Pompei used the speaker to play a John Coltrane album and made it seem as if Coltrane's saxophone were flying over the audience and whooshing by their faces.
He saved $2,000 as a graduate student and began building the business after he graduated in 2002. A year later, MIT's magazine, Technology Review, awarded Pompei the Top Young Inventor Award.
"It's a device that preserves the quiet," Pompei said. "There's so much going on, it's sometimes an audio assault. This is like surround silence."
Baba Shetty, director of interactive media at Hill Holliday in Boston, said it is easy for people to filter out visual messages and advertisements - you look away or don't pay attention - but audio is less avoidable. It could be a great way to communicate with customers as they shop, he added, but it could also make consumers feel as if their personal space is being invaded
"It doesn't do your brand any good if you annoy people," Shetty said.
At T-Mobile dealers in the United Kingdom, the audio spotlight allows consumers to test ring tones without the entire store knowing that they want to download Abba's "Dancing Queen."
The Boston marketing firm Digitas hung an audio spotlight over a couch in the lobby so visitors can hear the company's advertisements playing on an LCD screen. But it's pure quiet for the receptionist sitting just a few feet away.
Holosonics is also looking to reach consumers at home. The audio spotlight, Pompei says, has the potential to limit long-running feuds over television volume and musical taste.
Paul Hummel of Saddle River, N.J., bought the device last summer for his bedroom so he could sleep peacefully while his wife watched television. "Now we can crank up the big TV without disturbing our neighbors or the rest of the family," he said.