These Speakers Sound Great. And They’re…Invisible!

By  |  Monday, January 26, 2009 at 9:26 am

Emo LabsI had two hands-down favorites at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. One of them was the one that was everybody’s favorite: Palm’s upcoming Pre phone. The other was a little-known technology which I saw demoed in a private preview. It’s from a Boston-area startup called Emo Labs, and it’s a new technology for loudspeakers that called Edge Motion. Emo says that Edge Motion lets it build “invisible loudspeakers” for incorporation into TVs, computer displays, notebooks, and another devices with screens–and that its technology is the first all-new development in speaker design in decades. Judging from the sneak peek I saw, that isn’t hype.

Standard loudspeakers reproduce sound by moving a cone back and forth. Edge Motion does the job by using arrays of motors to wiggle the edges of a clear membrane. The motor arrays can be built into the frame that surrounds a TV, monitor, or laptops’s display, and the clear membrane sits in front of the screen–it’s a much more space-efficient approach than that of traditional speakers, since it utilizes the screen real estate that’s already there. (The bigger the screen, the bigger the membrane can be; the bigger the membrane, the better the sound.) End result: Audio quality you associate with bulky speakers without the bulk.

Here are some images from Emo that explain how it works:

Emo Labs Explanation

Emo Labs Explanation

Emo Labs Expanation

The notion of a loudspeaker system that involves a bunch of motors that move a piece of plastic in front of a screen is a little hard to process mentally–at least if you know as little about audio engineering as I do. It sounds like it would be noisy and that you’d be able to see the membrane jiggling about. Nope. The demos that I heard worked wonderfully well.

Before the Emo exects I met with told me how Edge Motion works, they showed me a Diana Krall concert on an ordinary-looking medium-sized flatscreen TV, and the sound was big enough that I wondered if they’d tucked a multi-piece speaker system with a subwoofer out of sight. Another demo involving a 15-inch LCD such as the ones built into notebooks was equally impressive. Or maybe even a bit more so, since the loudspeakers embedded in notebooks usually range from abysmal to tinny-but-marginally-bearable-as-long-as-you’re-not-at-all-discriminating.

Emo plans to sell the speakers to consumer electronics manufacturers who will embed them in their products. I’m not an audiophile, and my ears aren’t always smart enough to be impressed by sound-related demos which I’m assured will impress me. But the benefits of Edge Motion were obvious the moment I listened; if it sounds as good in shipping products and doesn’t cost radically more than standard audio technology, I think it’ll be a major hit.

We’ll have to wait awhile before we know for sure: The company says that it hopes that TVs will be ready in time for Christmas, but availability might slip into 2010. Edge Motion speakers for notebooks will come along later (it’s a trickier engineering challenge to squeeze the technology into the more limited space provided by a portable computer). Over time, Emo has hopes of putting Edge Motion into just about any device that has a screen and a need for sound, including pocketable gizmos such as cell phones.

I look forward to watching (and, more important, listening) as Edge Motion makes its way into the market…

[NOTE: Commenter John Mulvaney notes that Emo's technology looks similar to NXT's SoundVu...I'm going to ask Emo for their input on how the technologies compare.] [FURTHER NOTE: An Emo representative says that the company has no association with NXT, and that the technologies are fundamentally different. I hope to get more details...]

 
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15 Comments For This Post

  1. John VanderSchuit Says:

    What happends if something like that breaks though? Also, I’m sure that at certain volumes, you MUST see that membrane vibrating? I mean come on….vibration IS movement.

    I’m sure it sounds decent and is space-saving, but there are some practical issues that raise some questions still.

    I know for a fact something like this wouldn’t replace surround sound or headphones.

    I’d say the best application for something like this would be on small portable devices where carrying sound equipment would be impractical.

    Anything else…I can see it costing a lot for larger devices, and I’m sorry but this simply cannot replace a home theater experience.

  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    Hi, John: I don’t think Emo is attempting to replace home theater setups. Its goal is provide better sound than the speakers typically built into TVs and other devices, while taking up less space. I was impressed…

    –Harry

  3. Randy Peterman Says:

    @John I don’t think you understand this technology. It isn’t supposed to replace surround sound, it isn’t supposed to be the end all be-all solution. It is, however, a great space saving way for some products to have better quality sound than the tiny sized speakers that they typically come with. Because of the way that speakers work, this product helps a lot. It isn’t different from a few other devices that have used flat surfaces such as windows and tables as amplifiers: the larger the surface, the louder the sound can be with better dynamic range (to a certain extent). I look forward to this!

  4. John Mulvaney Says:

    Looks very like the NXT surface sound technology, I wonder if the are a licensee?

  5. Stellios Says:

    Can they play any kind of music or just EMO?

  6. T.I.Money Says:

    I think this great and hope to one of the lucky ones to try it. Any info on how to get my hands on them.

  7. Robert Taylor Says:

    “End result: Audio quality you associate with bulky speakers without the bulk.”
    I think not, designers of proper loudspeakers go to great lengths to engineer stiff cones which do not generate spurious signals; cone excursions are closely damped by low impedance amplifier ouputs so that the cone stops when the signal stops; cone flexure is minimised and the cone suspension also damps any vibrations in the cone itself. This present speaker design works by flexing the membrane so I would not anticipate tight control of a wobbling sheet of plastic! I do not know how the ‘motors’ work but they can’t be as direct as a speech coil in a normal loudspeaker. I assume that back movements of the membrane are vented at the sides – this lack of a cabinet or baffle will severely limit bass response as the back radiation cancels the front at low frequencies.
    Finally, how will this membrane stand up to cleaning when Joe public starts wiping a greasy hand across it trying to remove coughed out coffee and bits of doughnut?

  8. The Taxciter Says:

    I agree with Robert Taylor. It would take unimaginable materials tech and transducer (or “motor” in this case) control to get a sheet of anything to make hi-fi sound when moved about the edges. So this would seem at best a mid- to low-fi device. We’ll see. The good news is that most of the market doesn’t care much about realistic sound reproduction. Witness the iPod, the mp3 format, and the car as a listening room.

  9. cnpower Says:

    plane speaker? are they same one?
    many years ago has. and another wonderful spotlight speaker with narrow radiation angle.

  10. Manish jain Says:

    for driving these motors they will have to change the whole audio
    amplification system or the approch can be to use the same signal as
    available and process it to get the needed drive signal for motors also
    the power specs (in terms of comsumed electrical power) can be a good
    factor to consider/promote the things further

  11. Richard Pearce Says:

    I found this article very interesting since back in 1994, Innovative Transducers Inc., a manufacturer of geophysical sensors since sold to the French, created several transducers that used a similar curved shaping of a constrained Piezo Polymer sheet to generate sound for use in sub-bottom marine geophysical imaging. This micro motor concept is similar in nature however the piezo polymer film changed length as opposed to pulling on the edges of a passive polymer film. ITI was approached by Draper Labs and asked to solve a rather unigue problem of creating spatial arrays of very low mass primarily as receivers. Several transducers of a gaussian shape utilizing a second order differential curvature approach were built for use in spacial arrays as detection devices. There were quite a few iterations of this concept to include devices that acted as both transmitters and recievers. Had there been a market at that time, it would have been very simple to create panels that also were optically transparent using a gold sputter technique to apply “invisible” electrodes to the polymer film. The manufacturer of the Piezo Polymer film at the time also built “talking” mylar baloons but unfortunately, they were rather expensive novelties and never really took off.

  12. Dave birchall Says:

    This device i assume need a specialised driver?, however its a great possbility to use the method as a part of a secondary glazing unit or a transparancy decor panel of some kind.
    great idea

  13. Smith Says:

    Those speakers sound amazing. Wouldn’t mind some external to plug into my computer, or a way to wifi them to multiple devices.

  14. LOL Says:

    EMO TECHNOLOGY ROFL

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