Emo Labs, Making Sound Leap Off the TV Screen, Woos Asian Electronics Makers
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.
So 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, 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 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 iswhether the big TV manufacturers will bite. Carlson and Evelyn say that in their meetings in Asia, they present data showing that consumers are starting to get fed up with the audio quality of their thin new flat-panel HDTVs. Boston-based market research firm Chadwick Martin Bailey, in a survey commissioned by Emo, found that “there is a generally high level of disappointment [in sound quality] when people bring that new TV home,” according to Evelyn.
The company also says there’s anecdotal evidence that salesmen at big-box stores—think Wal-Mart or Best Buy—are having a harder time these days hawking new TVs based on picture quality alone. “Early on, plasma and LCD were actually a step down in picture quality from the best CRTs, but now it’s pretty good,” says Carlson. “But recently a manufacturer in Japan relayed a conversation with an executive from a very large U.S. electronics retailer, who said ‘Video quality on these TVs is at 4.5 on a scale of 1 to 5. It’s about time you start working on something else, because I’m going to have a hard time selling TVs if you just go from 4.5 to 4.7.'”
But the point the Emo executives keep coming back to is the laughably bad audio quality of the speakers in the thinnest new TVs. “In the video world, what if we said that we were going to take away red, and you could only have blue and green?” says Carlson. “Yet that’s what they’re doing in the audio world—these little speakers can’t do sound below 300 Hertz, yet there are bass sounds in the Dolby tracks of DVDs going down to 60 or 80 Hertz.”
If electronics makers in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea decide to give consumers the choice, you might be able to pay an extra $50 or $100 for those missing frequencies within a year or two. Of course, winning a signed purchase agreement from a major customer—and spinning up the necessary manufacturing capacity—might mean that Emo Labs would have to go back to its venture backers for more cash. But Carlson says that’s the least of his concerns: “I think our investors would be pretty quick to write that check.”
[Update, July 13, 2009: Forbes.com has published a nice video segment featuring Jason Carlson demonstrating Emo’s speaker technology.]