I’m sitting in a fancy hotel room in downtown San Francisco, which seems to be the recurring location of most of my private meetings in the game industry. Across the room is a Turtle Beach representative, tooling around with some hardware. Turtle Beach’s MO is gaming headsets, but today it’s showing me something new.
The Turtle Beach representative, kneeling in front of some equipment, turns to me and says, “So I’m going to point these speakers … well … not speakers. You know what I mean. I’m going to point these … things … at your head. So hold still.”
I’m hogging the middle of a sofa that could accommodate three of me, yet I am the only one of three people in the room sitting on it. The third person is fidgeting a bit, standing well away from the couch, which is a bit disconcerting.
Across from me a few feet away, a Turtle Beach representative is carefully aiming two mirrored mesh surfaces at my face. Both are about the size of an 8-by-11 inch picture frame, and wires connect them to a serious-looking audio receiver.
“Let me know when you see yourself in the reflection of these panels …” the representative calls out over his shoulder.
I begin to see my hairy face staring back at me, and I confirm that the panels are lined up. He then stands well back and turns the audio receiver on. Should I be concerned? It’s too late. Turtle Beach’s HyperSound Clear is ready to fire.
High end clarity
The next moment, Turtle Beach’s HyperSound Clear system activates and the time scrub for a song appears on the television set across the room. I hear the familiar electronic echo intro, followed by the familiar guitar loop of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Except it’s as if I am hearing it through a pair of tweeters just a few inches away from my head. All of the song’s high-end sound effects have an uncanny clarity, yet the closest speakers are about 6 feet away.
And they aren’t turned on.
Jackson’s voice snaps into the highs, magically hitting my ears, “They told ’em don’t you ever come round ‘ere…”
Then the representative unmutes the television set’s speakers to fill in the mids and lows. The complete canvas of the song begins to fill out, but the mid- and low-end sounds can’t keep up with the clarity of the highs. It’s like staring at a painting, and only the highlights of the composition are vibrant and sharp. The mid tones and shadows feel faded and dull, as if someone decided to touch the picture up but only got a third of the job done.
What’s really strange, however, is that this quality on the high end of the audio comes without a traditional magnet-‘n’-cone speaker pushing air to create sound waves. It’s … something else.
So, what’s going on here? The mirrored panels pointing at my face fire off an ultrasound beam from across the room, that delivers the audio through the air. To use light as an analogy, some light sources broadly disperse waves across an environment in a wide and unfocused way. This is why older general illumination bulbs are really great a lighting up a big environment.
LED bulbs, however, are much more focused. Their beams tend to be brighter, but they don’t scatter the waves around as much (as an aside, this is why these bulbs suck for street lamps).
The HyperSound Clear system is like a LED flashlight that fires the sound into a narrow and extremely focused ultrasound beam, which the listener can only pick up if it is being aimed right at them.
To test this theory out, I muted the television speakers and moved out of the aim of the HyperSound Clear’s panels. I could still faintly hear “Beat It,” but it wasn’t nearly as crisp as sitting directly in its path.
Why was I still hearing Michael Jackson in my head? I looked behind the couch and noticed a gigantic mirror was bouncing the beam out to other parts of the room.
Like light, the audio can be reflected and seems to lose some of its quality the more it bounces.
Perhaps this wasn’t the best environment to test every aspect of the device, but this room definitely had sweet spots where you could — and then suddenly could not — hear Michael Jackson telling us to “Beat it!”
While I can see the benefits of the HyperSound Clear system as an audio entertainment platform, especially if the engineers can figure out transmitting the mid and low ranges, where Turtle Beach is focusing their HyperSound Clear strategy first is in the medical field. It’s marketing the tech as a device to allow individuals with certain types of hearing loss to be able to enjoy their entertainment without blowing out their speakers … or driving their household insane.
The American Hearing Aid Associates, which is a group consisting of otolaryngologists, audiologists, and hearing aid techs and that backs the technology, has partnered with Turtle Beach. It’s supposedly available now, medically, in a limited capacity — but Turtle Beach plan on doing a wider consumer distribution soon.
Who said that?
While we were shooting Michael Jackson’s discography around the room, some terrifyingly dystopian ideas began to run through my imagination. In the perfect environment, HyperSound Clear tech could be used to seriously mind-f*** unsuspecting victims. I could easily use this system to fire dialogue at someone from across the street. If I was especially malicious, I could make them think they are hearing voices in their head. Someone could virtually induce psychotic episodes.
The ideas we started coming up with were rather harmless but just as evil. One concept that is immediately apparent is what corporations could do with this thing. What if this were installed in a McDonald’s, which made sure to shoot a key phrase that only someone standing in a certain part of the line could hear? Something to convince that customer to buy a Big Mac meal instead of the $1 McDouble?
What if these things were aimed at the height of the average child’s head in a toy store? Kids are easily manipulated, so it wouldn’t take a lot of audial convincing to get a kid nagging their parents to purchase something.
Keep in mind these are frightening ideas being tossed around in a friendly conversation, but seeing as greed has no bounds, I’m going to keep an eye out for HyperSound Clear audio emitters installed about knee-high in toy stores. Especially the next time my daughter hounds me for another Disney’s Frozen dress.
VB’s research team is studying web-personalization… Chime in here, and we’ll share the results.