For notebook computer designers, maximizing internal real
estate and minimizing weight is always an issue. Replacing a component with
something lighter and more svelte that performs better is a well-trodden design path.
A startup in Waltham,
MA called Emo Labs aims to put speakers in
notebooks, TVs, monitors, auto telematics and even cell phones on a diet. Their
technology, known as Edge
Motion, embeds a thin plastic membrane over the screen that is permanently
clamped in the middle inside a light metal frame. Typically, the membrane is made
from PET plastic
similar to that found in touch-screen applications (and milk jugs), according
to Emo Labs CEO Jason Carlson.
On either end, piezo actuators tug on
the membrane at an extremely fast rate to create terrific (my words ... I heard it)
stereo sound. The left speaker is on that side of the membrane while the other side
houses the right side speaker (remember, the membrane is the speaker. There are
no speaker speakers, if you will).
While fidelity is
vastly improved over low-quality computer and TV speakers, the visual effects
of sound coming directly from an actor's or singer's lips is just as compelling.
Given that conventional computer speakers often sit to the left and right of a
monitor, the sound is never perfectly in sync with the video. But Edge Technology gets closer,
offering the viewer/listener more of the movie theater sound experience.
A proprietary amplifier built from off-the-shelf components control
the actuators which vibrate the membrane to produce sound, says Carlson. "Traditional speakers
look like a resistor to the electronics. Ours looks more like a capacitor," he
says, explaining the requirements of the Emo Labs amplifier.
Asked how he came up with the idea, inventor Lewis Athanas,
a speaker designer with four patents and 36 products to his credit according to
the Emo Labs' website, says "I did the math and it works. Most people in
the field don't get comparing movements with theory," he says. Now Emo Labs' CTO,
Athanas began work on Edge Motion in
2001 in his garage and has steadily improved several iterations since. Emo Labs
was formed in 2006.
This type of technology falls into the category of planar
speakers, which use membranes like Edge Technology. Conventional speakers are
typically horn-shaped and use magnetic fields to drive sound, although there are
The company that comes closest to Emo Labs is NXT, which claims to have
shipped 4.5 million units incorporating its Distributed Mode
Loudspeaker (DML) and Audio Full Range
loudspeaker (AFR) technologies as of mid-2008. The Cambridge, England-based company has signed a
variety of monitor and automakers. Another planar speaker company is Martin Logan, which has a membrane driven
by a conventional speaker, which is absent in the Emo Labs and NXT technologies.
Carlson says Emolabs is close to signing up two OEMs to
start, but won't say who they might be. The technology will add $20-$40 to the
cost of manufacturing a TV, for example. That will translate to $75-$90 at
retail. He says to look for the technology in places like Best Buy by the end of
the year or early next.
As for testing, Carlson says they've run a unit 24x7 for
30 days at elevated voltage and heat levels, but were unable to break it. Will
they replace conventional speakers? Carlson backs away from that ambitious and
perhaps unrealistic idea, but mentions another.
"That's not what we are going for. We want to be
number one on the embedded speaker market."