The other day, The Boston Globe had an article by Jenn Abelson on something called an "audio spotlight device," from Holosonic Research Labs in Watertown, Massachusetts. Now, I'm almost automatically behind anything that's Made in Massachusetts. And I do love the use of screen beans, a personal favorite, on their home page. But from the applications mentioned in Abelson's article, I think we need "audio spotlight devices" as much as we need another hole in our heads.
The technology "sends sound in a narrow beam, just like light, making it possible to direct messages right into consumers' ears while they shop or sit in waiting rooms....[The device] has been used to hawk everything from cereals in supermarket aisles to glasses at doctor's offices. The messages are often quick and targeted -- and a little creepy to the uninitiated.
Well, I can imagine the messages being a little creepy to the initiated, as well.
In one use that Abelson describes, the spotlight was used to advertise a murder mystery show on Court TV. In the mystery book section of some bookstores, browsers had a whispering voice beamed at them that asked, "Do you ever think about murder?"
Easy to see the first lawsuit once someone on the border of being fully unhinged has a message beamed in his ear.
'Murder? Say, I hadn't really considered it, but now that God is whispering it in my ear. It's as if God is telling me something, isn't it? And, hey, when the Big Guy speaks, you gotta listen.'
According to the article, this technology is being used overseas. (Warning: stay out of Istanbul and Madrid airports and Fiat showrooms.) And a number of American consumer goods companies and retailers are evaluating it.
The audio spotlight will let marketers single out individual shoppers for special treatment. No more blaring "Gallon Jugs of Tide on special in aisle 3". Now messaging will be more selective. "You there, yes you, the one in the stained sweatshirt who just put the Teddy's peanut butter in your cart. You can get that stain out with Tide. Proceed at once to aisle 3."
Or, as you walk by certain products, you could be beamed info on it. Starkist is probably already considering resurrecting Charlie the Tuna to let us know how nutritional it is - and, of course, what good taste it has. Oy!
The thought of all those product icons talking to you. Snap, Crackle, and Pop; Speedy AlkaSeltzer; Mr. Clean; the Jolly Green Giant; the woman from those cheesy Mento's ads. What a nightmare! (I sincerely hope that Mr. Whipple is retired.)
I'm sure that advertisers will also be lining up seductive voice-over folks, too.
I might be able to resist the Jolly Green Giant telling me to buy three cans of Le Seur peas, but what if Martin Sheen is telling me to load up on Miracle Whip. (Yuck.) Will I be able to resist that siren call. What if Paul Newman starts directing me to buy his dressings? (Save your breath, Paul, I already do.)
The genius behind Holosonics founded the company while he was studying for his doctorate at MIT. Joseph Pompei believes that:
"It's a device that preserves the quiet. There's so much going on, it's sometimes an audio assault. This is like surround silence."
Well, one man's 'surround silence' is another woman's 'invasion of the sanity snatchers.'
I really hope that this one lets you opt out.
As with oh so many technologies, however, there are also some reasonable uses.
The MFA [Boston's Museum of Fine Arts] installed four audio spotlight disks as part of the recent exhibit, "Fashion Show: Paris Collections 2006." Each designer's collection had its soundtrack playing in its own zone, but the technology ensured music from the Chanel collection did not cross over to Dior's.
I can also see that this sort of technology would be a big boon at tradeshows. If you've ever worked the booth opposite the one that has a carnival barker going non-stop, you'll know what I mean. Also in those multi-plex movie theaters with the rice-paper walls through which you can hear the bang-bang and car chases from the next film over.
And there are home uses: pinpointing music or TV so that one person's pleasure doesn't have to become your pain. As someone whose husband keeps the television on as background news (a steady state of financial news, "24", and basketball games from the Celtics' glory days), I can easily see the benefits of this type of application.
But product specific messages beamed at me while I shop? Turn-off, tune-out. Not even the voice of Martin Sheen.
And a tip of the Red Sox cap she gave me to my sister Trish who pointed this article out to me. She is particularly disturbed at the thought of a cereal box talking to her. Who can blame her? Moms are already being marketed to in the cereal aisle by their kids.