Emo Labs, Making Sound Leap Off the TV Screen, Woos Asian Electronics Makers

7/1/09Follow @wroush

Thanks to ongoing advances in liquid crystal display and plasma screen technology, flat-panel TVs keep getting flatter. Sharp’s new 46-inch Aquos X model is only 1.35 inches deep—thinner than three iPhones stacked together. But while all this thinness may be sexy, it comes at the cost of decent sound: the less room a conventional loudspeaker has to resonate, the less volume and fidelity it can manage. So millions of people are taking home their giant new 1080p HDTVs, hooking them up to their Dish Network receivers and Blu-Ray disc players, and discovering to their discontent that the built-in speakers sound like tinny little laptops.

But what if the screen itself could double as a TV’s loudspeakers? Then manufacturers could build televisions as wide and as thin as their display technology allows without sacrificing a decibel of volume or a hertz of frequency range. And this, in fact, is exactly the idea that a startup called Emo Labs is pitching to the likes of Sony, Samsung, Sharp, LG, and Toshiba.

I went out to Emo headquarters in Waltham, MA a couple of weeks ago to meet the company’s executives and see (and hear) their prototypes, and I’m here to report that if the idea takes off, it could completely change the way we experience DVDs, cable TV, satellite TV, and console video games. You know how when you go to a theater, the dialogue and music sounds like they’re coming from the movie screen? That’s because the screen is perforated, and the loudspeakers are actually right behind it. You get the same effect from Emo Labs’ “Edge Motion” technology—except that the sound in Emo’s device is coming from a thin, transparent layer of plastic between you and a TV’s display. The plastic vibrates like a drumhead, driven by actuators on either side, producing bright, room-filling, and very loud stereo sound.

Emo Labs' 42-inch prototypeSo far, the company has built prototype “Edge Motion” membranes that measure up to 42 inches diagonally. Allan Evelyn, Emo’s vice president of business development, says the company is six or seven meetings deep into negotiations with certain Asian consumer electronics companies, talking about ways to get Emo’s technology built into future flat-panel TVs. If Emo wins a contract, it could not only help TV manufacturers start to reverse the trend toward tiny, tinny speakers, but it could lead to a nice payoff for the five-year-old startup, which is backed by Polaris Venture Partners, the Venture Capital Fund of New England, and a handful of angel investors.

But it’s an uphill battle, especially at a time when manufacturers beset by price wars and economic crisis are averse to anything that would make their products more expensive. Emo estimates that building in its membrane would add 10 to 15 percent to the cost of a television, making a $1,000 device into an $1,150 one. “If you have a choice between a quarter-inch-thick TV that sounds like a notebook computer, or a TV that sounds really good, I know what most consumers will choose,” says Jason Carlson’s, Emo Labs’ CEO. “But in what [the manufacturers] are doing, from a product planning point of view, I wouldn’t say they have fully embraced that yet.”

Emo Labs has gone through its share of twists and turns to get to this point. The company is a 2004 spinoff of Natick, MA-based Manifold Products, a “venture engineering” firm that helps to build businesses around novel electromechanical technologies. Lewis Athanas, a 20-year veteran of the Boston-area audio technology companies like Boston Acoustics, had approached Manifold in 2003 with an idea for a transparent plastic sheet that would fit over the screen of a computer monitor, producing sound under the influence of piezoelectric actuators along the sheet’s left and right edges.

Piezoelectric materials produce electricity when a stress is applied—and conversely, they change their shape when an electric field is applied, which is why they’re widely used in loudspeakers. By vibrating in a direction perpendicular to the plane of the plastic sheet, the actuators in Athanas’s system cause the sheet itself to flex slightly, moving the air in front of the sheet and producing sound waves. By moving independently, the actuators on the left and right sides of the sheet can give rise to stereo sound.

Manifold helped Athanas turn his lab concept into a prototype, and raised angel funding for a company to commercialize the idea. As the startup’s original name, Screenspeaker, suggests, … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri

    Wade, I’m so glad you found this story and took the time to really tell it. I have been wondering what was going on with EmoLabs since I met Jason, the CEO, a couple years ago. He was impressive and I thought they were really onto something, and you clearly do too. I am crossing my fingers for their team and investors to score a big one.

  • Donal Collins

    Sounds remakably (if not exactly??) like NXT soundvu which made attempt to do this a number of years ago with out much success by using a tanparent screen which was the front screen of the TV/ monitor and sound came from vibrations caused by piezoelectric transducers.