Interview: F. Joseph Pompei, Holosonics - U2 Feedback

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Old 07-26-2004, 11:06 AM   #1
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Interview: F. Joseph Pompei, Holosonics*

By Roland Schulte

Imagine listening to your favourite music in your car while your friends do the same. Now, imagine that your friends have completely different musical tastes than you.

F. Joseph Pompei's invention of the Audio Spotlight, which permits directional control of sound, has been said to rival the invention of the phonograph, telephone, and Walkman. The Audio Spotlight has already been employed in places such as the Boston Museum of Science and Disney's Epcot Center, along with receiving recognition from MIT's Technology Review and the annual G8 summit this past June.

Last fall, U2 fans noticed a picture on Holosonics' Web site [] of Bono and Edge with the caption, "We're currently working with U2 to design an Audio Spotlight system for rock concert applications imagine the same kind of effects used for sound that are already used for lights."

(Photo: courtesy of Holosonics) recently spoke with Pompei about applications of the Audio Spotlight, how U2 discovered the technology and how it might show up in a U2 performance soon. Read on to discover more about this audio innovation.

In your opinion, what is the most creative application of the Audio Spotlight?

The applications that are the most interesting are the utilitarian, the workhorse applications. The most interesting ones are the ones that permit the use of the sound in a place you normally couldn't. That's an interesting concept for people to understand, a nice quiet environment. They want it both ways, a quiet room and a quiet environment, but they still want to add sound without losing the background. The Audio Spotlight lets them do that, which is great for galleries and retail stores and other kind of solutions. I find those applications tremendously interesting.

We've done a lot of gallery installations, a lot of corporate lobby installations, museums and things. And the concept of being able to control your acoustic space, the sight in the layout, and design of the sound distribution as carefully and as precisely as we're used to doing light design has turned out to be a very interesting field for a lot of very interesting products.

As far as the most entertaining or unusual applications: some of the gallery installations that artists themselves are creating using the Audio Spotlight technology specifically for the kinds of artistic projects they want to do, those are very interesting. It's not really what most of out market is, but is certainly a very interesting set of applications. For example, an artist recently generated a system that would follow somebody around with the Audio Spotlight as they walked through the gallery, and it actually had a video tracking system. People could log in and pick these tracks, and the Audio Spotlight beam would follow the person as they went through the gallery whispering voices in their ear, playing music, things like that following these single people through. Very, very unusual and very interesting for people because they are not used to dealing with sound in that way, in a very intimate experience within a public space. So that's really fascinating. It was actually Marie Sester's work. She just won a Webby Award [a best in Internet award given by The Web magazine] for it, which I thought was great.

Another really cool installation that we have is at the Boston Museum of Science. What we have there is three Audio Spotlights mounted right next to each other overhead. We recorded a jazz quartet and the rhythm section of the jazz quartet, which were played over a traditional loudspeaker and shown on a traditional TV. So no matter where you are in the space you heart the rhythm section. Each of the Audio Spotlights, in contrast, is playing a different soloist. So, three people can stand right next to each other and one person will hear the violin player, one person will hear the vocalist, and one person will hear the trumpet player, all over the same rhythm section. They can pick the soloist of their choice just by where they stand, and, literally, within a foot or two of each person, you have completely different sound. We combined that with a directional video display that does the same thing for videos that the Audio Spotlight does for audio. It actually has one screen that changes the video depending on the angle that you are looking at it. Three people could look at the same screen and see three completely different videos. That's all installed in the Boston Museum of Science right now.

How about the Audio Spotlight applications with Disney Imagineering and British Airways?

The interesting Disney project is at the Innoventions Center within Disney's Epcot theme park. You can read a little more about it in our press releases on the Web site []. Basically, there are two things shown. One thing is the Audio Spotlight with sound flying around the room and whizzing over people's heads and causing all sorts of interesting commotion in the crowds, who really don't know what too expect from such a system. There is another installation there that GM has put in called Juno, which is a concept car that uses four Audio Spotlights systems to give each person inside the vehicle their own sound. Four people can sit in the same car, but everyone can choose what they wish to hear and they don't interfere with each other listening.

Could this also solve the predicament of one person wanting to listen to music in bed while the other person doesn't?

Absolutely. That's precisely one the directions that we are going in with consumer products. That is right now in development, because people of course don't like to wear headphones if they can avoid it, especially if they are sleeping.

And British Airways?

British Airways is very interested in two areas. The grand idea they want to pursue is to replace the headphones on board an aircraft. The headphones turn out to be very expensive for the airline generally, and there is a lot of added expense and logistics. Headphones are another thing the airline has to support and they have to contract someone to clean them and replace them, they get damaged, stolen, etc. When you sit on an airplane seat, you already have, right overhead, a focused air source that flows extra air your way. You have a light source right overhead that puts light right on your lap when you want to read. Why not put a directed sound source right next to it? That's the idea for British Airways.

The other thing they are doing more immediately is putting Audio Spotlights in terminals. The idea is this: When you sit in a section of the airport, or airport lounge, or anywhere else you deliver sound to the specific person who wants to hear it. Everybody else is spared.

How were you first contacted by U2?

We had an installation going up in Dublin, which was an Audio Spotlight application for a gallery. I happened to be in town doing the installation and U2 was recording their album locally, they heard about this installation coming in and they were really curious about it. They showed up one day when we were just finishing the installation, wanting to see and hear this thing because they really couldn't piece it that it was possible to do. They demanded to see it, so I was happy to show it to them, gave them a demonstration. They loved it. They fell for the technology immediately, and realized that it had a lot of potential as an artistic tool for musicians. This was actually one of original visions I had for the Audio Spotlight before I had to be practical as a businessman. I was a musician one time myself and I always thought it would be very interesting to choreograph musical instrument just as you do dancers. I thought that was terrific, the possibilities of a new tool to give to musicians to impose what instruments are playing what notes, but you can also control where each of those instruments are in relation to the listener, choreograph them around the listener as you do dancers. That concept is a very powerful one and that is something that U2 picked up right away, and is very interested in using it for future performances. So every time they come to town, we meet and talk about applications and what we can do, and how they might use this to entertain their own fans. We discuss this all the time.

Have you talked to U2 specifically about the tour reported to begin in early 2005?

We're discussing it but it is still in the very early planning stages. The issue is that right now our current Audio Spotlight systems are really designed for smaller installations, like living rooms, retail stores, museum installations, corporate exhibits, things like that. To get something that is suitable for a concert hall environment is the same thing as if you wanted to scale your home loudspeaker into a music or concert hall, we need to have a different design, and design things differently. There is a lot more power involved, and a lot more complications, so it is something that has to be planned very, very carefully.

Have you been working with other people around the U2 group (i.e. Willie Williams, etc)?

In discussions we've talked to some of their sound suppliers because they are obviously the ones who are going to be operating the equipment. We've been in touch with some of their people to give them some familiarity with the technology, and how it might be integrated into what they are doing.

U2 flew you to measure acoustics at a Staples Center concert. Can you tell us about that?

One of the things that I want to do is understand. If we're going to build Audio Spotlight systems for a concert environment, we need to understand what the requirements are. In order to do that, U2 suggested that we come to one of their larger shows with our measurement equipment, and take measurements and do an assessment so we can understand what needs to be built. So, we were invited out to a show in Los Angeles, myself and the engineers went out there, and did our measurements to try to understand exactly what they need from their sound systems, and what an Audio Spotlight could do in order to be suitable for that kind of environment. That gives us guidance on what we need to engineer. Great show, too.

Can you give an example of what U2 might apply the Audio Spotlight to?

One of the things that has been brought up repeatedly is essentially a choreographing of the musical instruments, particularly Edge's guitar or some of the extra sound effects and having it fly around the auditorium or stadium, much like they do with light shows. Right now, you have a light show and all sorts of interesting patterns around, the light is beaming by the audience, its going up and down and all sorts of things. You can do something very similar with sound with the Audio Spotlight, and that's what U2 are really interested in doing. I had also proposed a foot controller for Edge to use onstage so that he could control where the sound goes. All that is still under development now, but it is certainly a promising application.

Is the Audio Spotlight better suited for an indoor arena rather than an outdoor stadium?

Yes. With an indoor arena, the benefit is that you are moving your sound source just like you would a light, so it is flying by people, you are not filling the whole space with sound at the same time with an Audio Spotlight, that is what the loudspeakers are for. Instead what you are doing is beaming a small area of sound instead of continuously panning it, just like you do with a spotlight.

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Old 07-26-2004, 12:13 PM   #2
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Old 07-26-2004, 01:34 PM   #3
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Sounds like Audio Spotlight could give a person a case of vertigo
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Old 07-26-2004, 06:48 PM   #4
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Could be amazing!
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Old 07-26-2004, 08:01 PM   #5
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I SO hope they will be using this for the tour.
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Old 07-26-2004, 10:51 PM   #6
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give edge the controls to the AudioSpotlight?

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Old 07-27-2004, 03:34 AM   #7
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Good interview! Very interesting. I'm so excited about this technology, and it feels even better knowing that U2 is going to use it F. Joseph Pompei seems like a nice guy, I got a personal mail response from him, when I asked about this technology and U2's involvement, that rarely happens...
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Old 07-27-2004, 09:52 PM   #8
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This sounds fricken awesome. Vertigo effect indeed!

It sounds like although U2 would use it in a second, there are still some technical hurdles to cross in a relatively short period of time.

I bet u2 are helping to fund this part of the research to make sure the technology is concert-ready in time!

I wonder what he meant by U2 "demanding" to see a demonstration??

The only caution though is not to overdo it when applying the tech to the show. I could see this getting "old" quick and becoming a neat, but relatively cheap trick if it's not done with a lot of skill
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Old 07-28-2004, 05:57 PM   #9
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Thanks for throwing in that last question about arenas vs. stadiums...kinda adds to the indoor shows (yay) scenario (vs. big, giant arena shows)

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