An Ear-Boggling Development : Electronics: Hughes Aircraft is coming out with a component that gives the illusion of hearing recorded sound in three dimensions.
Within a maze of cubicles at a Hughes Aircraft Co. division here is a laboratory that employees have nicknamed Arnold’s Sandbox. Inside, Arnold Klayman has been playing with his invention, the AK-100.
The AK-100 conjures up visions of a new assault rifle from a company whose reputation was built over four decades as a manufacturer of sophisticated weapons ranging from radar systems to missiles.
But the AK-100, which bears Klayman’s initials, has nothing to do with the weapons industry. It is a stereo component that deceives the human ear into hearing recorded sound in three dimensions, instead of the normal two.
It also represents the defense firm’s latest thrust into commercial diversification.
“Our corporate goal is to become 50% commercial and 50% defense,” said Salvatore A. Piraino, director of commercial products for Hughes Microelectronic Systems. “This division is taking the lead on that (diversification) drive with this system.”
Hughes officials say the so-called “sound-retrieval system” used in the AK-100 could improve state-of-the-art audio as much as two-speaker stereos improved upon hi-fi sets. The AK-100 will make its debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago in June.
“It improves on a two-speaker stereo system by creating an illusion that you just brought a band into the room,” said Klayman, 64, a Hughes senior scientist who has been picking out “sweet spots,” or ideal listening positions in stereo rooms, and tinkering with audio equipment for 25 years. “It creates greater realism.”
Indeed, as Klayman cranks up the Big Band sound in the Sandbox--Piraino’s nickname for the sophisticated soundproof laboratory--the AK-100 component tricks the human ear into thinking that sound waves are beaming to the listener from different directions, much like natural sound or an expensive arrangement of a half-dozen speakers used in movie theaters. The component works with any two-speaker stereo system.
The system creates the illusion of listening to a live performance by “retrieving” the characteristics of natural sound--spatial cues that distinguish the directions that different sounds are coming from--which are picked up by recording microphones yet masked in the recording process.
“Microphones are not shaped like the human ear and so they cannot distinguish direction,” Klayman said. “This sound-retrieval system picks up the information and restores it--it wraps you in sound.”
With the patented sound-retrieval system, or SRS, the listener is not constrained in a particular sweet spot, and it maintains the sound quality when the listener moves or turns his head, turning a den into a concert hall.
Audio industry observers who have seen the product said the new technology could create some excitement in consumer electronics but they expressed some reservation.
“It will be tough going at first to build the name, but they have a unique product,” said Len Feldman, senior editor at Audio magazine in New York. “For the person who doesn’t want to go all the way with a home theater, this offers a nice and cheaper alternative.”
The price of the AK-100 component will be $449, far less than the several thousand dollar price for an equivalent surround-sound system, Piraino said. The systems will be built in Canada.
Ron Goldberg, a contributing editor to Video Review magazine in New York who has listened to the Hughes system, said stereo aficionados will still prefer a true surround-sound system, a multiple-speaker system often used in movie theaters. He also said the Hughes system will face tough competition from a host of other surround-sound substitute technologies from companies such as Toshiba Corp.
“People think of Hughes and they think aircraft,” he said. “Selling yet another digital toy to the public is going to be tough, especially for something that offers an illusion and not a true advantage.”
Piraino says Hughes people stumbled onto Klayman at a small Costa Mesa start-up while searching for a way to improve the company’s passenger entertainment systems for airliners. They bought his patents and hired him at the division in 1987 with the idea of bringing his product to market.
Development of the product took four years, longer than Hughes originally expected because the rapid miniaturization of computer electronics components continually forced Hughes to redesign Klayman’s invention until it could be reduced to a single semiconductor chip.
The company already receives royalties for licensing its sound-retrieval system technology to Sony Corp. for its high-end television sets. In June, Thomson CSF, the France-based owner of RCA, will introduce a line of TVs that use the technology.
Sales of the sound-retrieval system won’t be Hughes’ cure-all for the defense downturn. Piraino said he expects it to account for about 10,000 units in the first year.
That is a small part of the division’s current annual sales of about $100 million, generated mainly through defense work and commercial avionics products.
But Piraino said he expects SRS sales to grow to about $10 million to $15 million over several years. The company also plans to enhance the product line by issuing a less sophisticated model as well as a set of speakers based on the technology later this fall. Prices have not been determined.
In addition, Piraino said the company is trying to adapt the technology for use in car stereos through Delco Electronics Corp., a sister-company of Hughes Aircraft owned by parent firm General Motors Corp.
The company has also been talking to Walt Disney Co. for possible use of the ear-boggling SRS technology in thrill rides at Disneyland, and it is talking to International Business Machines Corp. about using SRS in the next generation of multimedia computers--those that incorporate high-quality audio, video and computing capabilities.
Hughes is negotiating agreements with retail electronics chains such as Silo Inc. to sell the AK-100, but Piraino said most retailers are waiting to see the actual product in June before making commitments.
Piraino acknowledges that it will be difficult for Hughes to establish its name--however well-known in defense circles--in the competitive consumer electronics industry overnight.
In the early 1970s, Hughes Aircraft was one of the first companies to manufacture components for digital watches. But it dropped out of that industry after foreign competitors found ways to manufacture the products at lower costs. Piraino thinks the company can avoid a similar fate this time.
“We’re the only ones in the world with this technology now.”