July 16, 2002 -- Anyone who has seen Tom Cruise fire his state-of-the-art sound wave gun at his pursuers in Minority Report no doubt assumes it is a weapon from the arsenal of science fiction. But such a weapon, or at least a less-glamorous version, is scientific fact.
Woody Norris, the CEO of American Technology Corporation and a pioneer in ultrasound technology, has developed a non-lethal acoustic weapon that stops people in their tracks.
"[For] most people," said Norris, "even if they plug their ears, it will produce the equivalent of an instant migraine. Some people, it will knock them on their knees."
The device emits so-called "sonic bullets" along a narrow, intense beam up to 145 decibels, 50 times the human threshold of pain. It usually doesn't take that much to stop someone, as we learned in a demonstration in the company parking lot. The acoustic "weapon," in the demonstration model, looks like a huge stereo speaker, except this one sports urban camouflage.
The operator chooses one of many annoying sounds in the computer — in this case, the high pitched wail of a baby, played backwards — and aims it at us. At 110 decibels, we were forced to walk out of the beam's path, our ears ringing. Had we stayed longer, Norris said our skulls would literally start to vibrate.
Police departments and the Pentagon are flocking to Norris' headquarters in San Diego to see this revolutionary technology for themselves. The problem with past attempts to make an acoustic weapon is that sound traveled in every direction, affecting the operator, as well. Norris' narrow ultrasound beam takes care of that problem, meaning police could use it to subdue suspects or quell riots, without hurting bystanders or the operator, because the sound is directional.
"Tear gas lingers long after you've fired off the canisters," said Norris. "This, you switch it off and it's gone. And the damage is only temporary."
Army to Use as Sonic Cannons
The U.S. Army has already ordered its own prototype of the non-lethal acoustic weapon. It will be packaged in a camouflaged cylinder and either be handheld or mounted on an armored car.
Two security experts who were at the company on behalf of the Defense Department said it would be terrific for repelling suicide bombers and for rousting terrorists from their hideouts. Because the sound ricochets in tight, enclosed areas, said retired Marine Col. Peter Dotto, it would make it very uncomfortable for al Qaeda terrorists to stay in Afghan caves.
"They would have to come out," said Dotto, "and they probably would come out with their hands over their ears so they would be very easy to subdue at that point."
Practical Uses, Too
Not all the applications of this new technology are pain-inducing. Norris has invented a related acoustic device called the Hypersonic Sound System. Only when he turns the speaker in your direction, do you hear the message. For instance, liquid being poured over ice was the sound requested by a soda company to inspire people within earshot of a vending machine to quench their thirst.
Norris tried out the acoustic beam at a mall near his office and passers-by all stopped to listen when the sound was aimed at them. "That is absolutely amazing," said one woman, "it sounds like the sound is inside your head."
There are dozens of potential commercial uses, from shooing away pesky birds (geese off of golf courses, for example) to directing television sound so it doesn't disturb a sleeping spouse.
Whether friend or "friendly fire," this new technology is likely to affect almost every aspect of our lives, in ways we can only begin to imagine.