November's spark of genius article
What Innovation Sounds Like
Woody Norris never thought he'd tangle with Somali pirates. But when news outlets reported in 2008 that a "sound focusing weapon" had been used to thwart pirates threatening a cruise ship in the Gulf of Aden, Woody knew they must be referring to his hypersonic sound technology. Now called a long range acoustic device (LRAD), it emits a clearly audible sound when pointed directly at a person. Yet anyone else, even someone sitting right next to the target, hears nothing. The volume of an LRAD can be intensified from normal conversation levels all the way up to ranges that cause adverse physical responses and sensory pain, which is how it makes pirates scatter within seconds.
Woody says the principle behind hypersonic technology is to focus sound waves the way a laser focuses light.
"Efforts to focus sound have been attempted for the last 40 to 50 years," explained Woody, "but distortion was always too high. I tried a different approach and managed to make smaller, less distorted devices. My hypersonic device was the first to successfully focus high-quality sound by embedding audible sound on top of ultrasound and having the audible sound demodulate in the air itself, without needing a receiver. In essence, the room is the speaker box." Woody holds several patents related to the technology, including U.S. patent no. 6,850,623.
The diverse applications of hypersonic sound range from home speakers and non-lethal weapons to targeted advertising-think of a talking vending machine that only the person directly in front of it can hear-enhanced movie and video game sound, and crowd control. It could even be considered a family peacekeeper: imagine different people in a room or car listening to completely different music or watching different shows without using headphones or fighting over controls.
But apart from these uses, Woody's work affects everyday life for millions. In the early 1960s, Woody came up with one of his first inventions, widely considered a precursor to the sonogram. Inspired by the principles of FM radio, he developed a transcutaneous Doppler system. If something under the skin was moving, an emitted ultrasonic wave would bounce back and get decoded by the device. In essence, the movement was "heard" by the doctor or technician. Unlike a stethoscope, Woody's invention focused on specific objects and did not pick up background sounds. In about a month, he went from the idea to delivery of a working prototype, which he then sold.
"I enjoyed the process-looking at a problem and identifying a way to solve it," said Woody, "but I was pretty sure I hadn't made any money. I got paid with what I thought was valueless stock. To my surprise, about a year later, the stock became worth what I considered a small fortune." A lifelong independent inventor was born.
Audiophiles in the 1970s might remember the cutting-edge linear arm phonograph. The tonearm didn't pivot but moved along a horizontal track to minimize distortion. Woody invented that over a weekend. Woody is also a pioneer in the use of flash memory and invented the Flashback (U.S. patent no. 5,491,774), the first handheld digital recorder that recorded on flash memory rather than tape.
Many Inventors Eye readers have probably used an ear-mounted speaker-microphone contraption that permits hands-free telephone use. Woody is behind that, too. His patents were sold to JABRA and were critical in the widespread use and development of Bluetooth technology.
Although Woody's inventions are generally related to sound, it doesn't stop him from exploring other areas of technology. CBS's "60 Minutes" featured his AirScooter (U.S. patent no. 6,460,802) , a single-seat, double-rotor personal helicopter with a 4-stroke engine. Woody taught "60 Minutes" correspondent Bob Simon to fly the AirScooter in less than an hour. While the gas-powered version was not produced commercially, Woody is working on a second generation all-electric AirScooter that utilizes recent advances in hybrid automobile batteries.
"If you're flying an ultralight helicopter and it dies, so do you," he said. "It is absolutely critical that you have lightweight, reliable, predictable power." He plans to have the electric AirScooter on the market "in the next year or so."
Woody's inventions have won product-of-the-year awards in various categories from both Popular Science and Business Week. A major honor was being awarded the 2005 Lemelson-MIT Prize for Inventor of the Year, which also carried with it a $500,000 honorarium. Not bad for a kid born outside Cumberland, Md., whose formal education ended with high school. But that doesn't mean Woody didn't study his subject areas intently.
As a young man, Woody took a low-paying job at the University of Washington, which allowed him free access to classes. He attended whenever he could find time. Electronics, religion, languages, accounting, psychology, physics-he took them all in order to gain a well-rounded sense of the world. In his typical modest style, Woody argued that "I am no genius. I am just 'smart enough.' I still find wonder in the mundane. I like to question the unknown and undone, and I never think that I can quit learning and tinkering. I don't want to be so educated that I put on blinders to possibilities. Sometimes it is better not to know something can't be done, and then maybe you'll find a way to do it."
But with all the success and fun he's had, Woody and his wife have also realized that giving back is both an honor and a responsibility. With the Lemelson-MIT honorarium and some additional investment income, they started the Elwood and Stephanie Norris Foundation in 2005. This foundation provides grants to young inventors and entrepreneurs and also provides four-year scholarships to the University of Maryland for selected students at Fort Hill High School, Woody's old high school in Cumberland. This year, Woody was honored for his continued support and generosity by being elected to the Fort Hill High School Hall of Fame. "They gave me a trophy and a Tee-shirt!" he said proudly.
Summing up the keys to his success, Woody said, "I became an inventor by accident. I observe and question and read and tinker. I work hard. I communicate well. I look at things differently. I can usually look at my ideas objectively, but I also get lucky. I hope my experience and success as an inventor can help other inventors realize that virtually nothing has been invented yet-the really cool inventions are all out there just waiting to be invented."