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

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the early plan was to license the intellectual property behind the transparent-speaker idea to manufacturers of cathode ray tube (CRT) and liquid crystal display (LCD) computer monitors. If the screen itself produced sound, the company reasoned, users of multimedia desktop computers wouldn’t need separate, external speakers, with their tangle of cords.

But then came two major changes in strategy. First, in 2006, after hiring semiconductor industry veteran Carlson as CEO and changing its name to Emo Labs (a reference to Athanas’s Edge Motion technology), the company decided to give up on the licensing model, and build the hardware itself. That, of course, is a much more expensive, time-consuming, and risky proposition.

“Rather than provide someone with the recipe, we started to get a sense that [licensors] wouldn’t actually be able to deliver the kind of quality and consistency we wanted,” says Evelyn. “So we pulled back, and did all of the research and built the models so that we could basically create any size screen with any level of sound quality a customer would want. And we put in place the key elements of a supply chain, so that when we start working with the various manufacturers, we’ll be able to deliver a total solution.”

That process took almost two years, a period during which Emo didn’t talk to potential customers or show its technology to anyone. Then, in mid-2008, two more developments cropped up. First, the prices of desktop computer monitors crashed. “LCD monitors became very highly commoditized,” says Evelyn—to the point where monitor makers told Emo its technology represented “the kind of innovations they can’t really afford, because their margins are so terrible.”

But at the same time, a couple of emerging trends suggested to Carlson and Evelyn that consumer flat-panel TVs might be a more sensible place to deploy the technology.

Allan Evelyen (left) and Jason Carlson hold up a prototype Emo Labs speaker“Allan and I were at the DisplaySearch conference [one of the largest trade meetings for developers of cutting-edge displays] in June, 2008, and they presented data showing that the number one size for flat-panel TVs through 2012 would be 32 inches,” Carlson says. “We’d been thinking that the world of TV was all about getting the biggest TV for the least dollars, but the reality is that people are putting LCD TVs in their bedrooms and kitchens and dens.” That created an opening for Emo, since it’s hard to build decent traditional speakers into a 32-inch case—and creating a transparent speaker that size using the Edge Motion technology was well within the company’s capabilities.

So the company built a 26-inch prototype and took it on a tour to Asian TV manufacturers last fall. “We had a tremendous response to it, but at each meeting, everyone basically said ‘Can you make a 32-inch or a 42-inch or a 50-inch one,'” says Evelyn.

Just six weeks ago, the company completed a 42-inch membrane, which it has integrated into the case of an off-the-shelf LCD HDTV. That’s the version the company showed me in Waltham, using a Diana Krall concert video as a demonstration. It was an unusual experience: the sound coming from the Emo-equipped TV was so big and detailed that my first impulse was to look underneath and behind the television itself, to find out where the sound was really coming from.

Just to prove that there was no funny business involved, Evelyn hooked up a stand-alone Edge Motion membrane to an iPod, held it in the air so that I could see him behind it, and blasted me with Beatles music (see photo above).

Now that Emo has credible prototypes as lures, the question is … Next Page »

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

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