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Hypersonic Sound

Norris Elwood “Woody” Norris proves there is no magic formula for becoming a successful inventor. Born in 1939 in Barrelville, Maryland, his mother and father had eighth-grade and third-grade educations, respectively, and Norris’s formal training stops with high school. But his aptitude for electronics and entrepreneurship and his enthusiasm for creating new technologies has taken him to the top of his game. Now the Chairman and CEO of American Technology Corporation in the San Diego suburb of Poway, California, he has more than 40 U.S. and 100 international patents and a variety of successful inventions to his credit in fields as diverse as sound technology, transportation and medicine.

Norris learned about electronics through tinkering with radios in his youth and discovered a natural ability to understand how circuitry worked. He joined the Air Force, where he received some training in radar and electronics while working on triggers for bombs. To supplement his military income, he took a job at a nearby television station as a cameraman and thought he might pursue acting after his military service was complete. As a high school student he had enjoyed participating in school productions and possessed some talent as a performer.

Instead, when Norris left the Air Force as Airman Second Class, he took a job at the University of Washington fixing electronic equipment. Within two years he was named director of the campus’ Engineering Experiment Station. When a local company approached him, he took on the task of developing a sonar version of radar to listen to sounds inside the body. This “Doppler” tool emitted ultrasonic sound into the skin. Changes in the pitch of the sound waves that bounced back allowed physicians to “hear” movement inside the patient. The tool, licensed to Medical Development Corporation (which was later acquired by American Hospitals), was helpful to the development of the Sonogram, and, as Norris received company stock for the device, it also helped him make enough money to set up his own company.

Soon Norris sold a phonographic tone arm he had been working on and evolved a specialization in audio-related devices. His subsequent inventions included headsets for mobile phones, a hearing-aid-sized FM radio, and automobile audio systems. He also created a child locater device for tracking kidnapped children, an alarm worn by a person to alert him that his artificial hip is starting to separate, and a design for a vehicle dubbed the AirScooter, an easy-to-fly, lightweight, inexpensive aircraft that has the ability to hover in one spot while a pilot gets his bearings. Norris has worked with NASA engineers to develop a prototype of the AirScooter, which he dreams will one day be viable as a commuter vehicle.

Norris is perhaps best-known for his most recent work on what is known as HyperSonic Sound. HSS, or directional sound, targets a listener with sound waves similar to the way a laser beam directs light, so that the individual who is targeted is the only one who can hear it. As a result, different people in one room could feasibly listen to different music, watch totally different television shows or movies, or hear different advertising messages without the use of headphones. Though others are also working on the HSS concept, Norris holds more than 20 patents in the field and is already realizing early commercialization opportunities for this revolutionary technology. With American Technology Corp., Norris is working on HSS and other audio technologies, including a compact sub-woofer, and “sonic bullets,” which emit intense beams of sound at targeted individuals giving them painful migraines.

Norris has been honored with numerous awards for his work including Product of the Year awards from “Popular Science” and “Business Week,” and a 1997 Award for Technological Innovation in the sound category from “Discover Magazine.” In 2005, Norris was the recipient of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize.

[June 2005]

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