Coming soon to a convention near you: Sound like it has never (or at least, rarely) been heard before.
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."
Sound as a Weapon
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.