At 7:12 AM on a Monday before July 4th, I’m listening to my wireless blackboard stream Spotify’s Acoustic Morning playlist. I’m the only person in the world listening to a blackboard, but others will join me soon.
Two years ago in Boulder, Colorado a couple of hacker, sound geeks posed a question: What if speakers could be beautiful?
These were veteran entrepreneurs. They were simply trying to solve the vexing problem of speaker design. Speakers have a long history of innovative industrial design. But lately, the new arms race among A/V integrators was to make sound invisible.
Bose started it by trying to shrink speakers to the size of your hands so that you could hide them behind the Eames chair carefully positioned in front of that Ikea bookcase. Sonos upped the ante by making them wireless (though they still need power which sadly still relies on wires). Next came the invisible speaker movement which involves ripping down walls installing speakers and then erecting new walls.
But What if speakers could become a focal point because of their aesthetic beauty? The Soundwall founders printed a photograph of the Utah salt flats in high resolution, framed it with house molding from Home Depot, attached a Raspberry Pi computer to a some speaker components that were mounted to laminated photograph. A couple of months later, they had written enough software to make that photograph stream from Itunes over airplay. These rebel art and sound hackers decided to make speakers using a radical technology called Distributed Mode Loading. Turn on the photograph, the electronics vibrate the canvas and now wireless music streams out of the Salt Flats.
Solid prototype built, the Boulder angel community that includes Brad Feld and David Cohen of Techstars pulled together a seed round and Soundwall was born. Gradually the sound got better and the company learned how to make the technology more durable and stable. The founders added a few employees including a professional violinist turned programmer, a set designer with the carpentry and electronics skills to build the product, a 21 year old who had been designing for 8 years, and a do-it-all marketer who fell in love with Soundwall so fast she gave up her corporate career to be employee number 5. They found a space in an abandoned lumber yard on the edges of Boulder. During that winter, they used space heaters and outerwear to make Soundwalls by hand in a shed with no heat or water. They warmed up and/or peed in the startup incubator space a five minute walk from their makeshift factory.
10 years ago, I had met one of these founders and we considered working together. It didn’t happen, but he stayed in touch. We saw each other once a year in NYC. 5 years ago, I had a vivid dream in which my entire family was settled and living in Boulder, Colorado. Since I had never been there, I decided that this was a “vision.” When he called a year ago, I knew that I least had to visit.
9 months later we have given birth to a blackboard, a mirror, and a myriad of other flat wall-based devices that emanate sound. We make beautiful, smart art machines. And I’m learning how hard it is to explain to people something that’s entirely new.
So I’m going to write about it here.