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CE firms drawn to magnets for wireless MP3 players

Non-radio stereo audio comms chips

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Exclusive Creative Technologies is preparing a wireless digital music player, the company behind the technology has revealed.

We're not talking Bluetooth or Wi-Fi here, but a short-range personal area system that doesn't use radio and is as near free from interference as makes no odds.

Instead of the 2.4GHz radio spectrum, fabless system-on-a-chip designer Aura Communications' LibertyLink system uses a technique called near-field communications. Essentially, that means transmitting inducting changes in one magnetic field into another.

Think earphones. Changing levels of current in the wires of an electric coil wrapped around a magnetic generate fluctuations in the magnetic field. But instead of using those fluctuations to drive a speaker cone, Aura uses them to induce the same fluctuation the field of another, nearby magnet, in turn generating small changes in the current within a wire wrapped around the second magnet.

The two magnets can be up to 2m apart, yet Aura's ASIC into which coil, along with amplification and signal processing circuitry are built, can be used to transmit stereo sound from, say, MP3 player to wireless earphones. Aura holds four US patents covering the technique's use in short-range communications.

Aura claims its technology offers better sound reproduction, considerably lower power operation - 5000 times lower than Bluetooth, for example - and longer operating times - 20 hours' continuous talk time, the company reckons - than competing radio-frequency technologies.

Big-name CE vendors sign up

Hence, Creative's interest and other consumer electronics manufacturers, Aura sales chief Dan Cui told The Register this week. "We expect a number of companies to have products that use our technology on show at next January's Consumer Electronics Show (CES)," he said.

Creative may well be one of them. CUI claimed the company is working on a device that connects player to 'phones using Aura's chip. And Creative recently invested in Aura's latest round of funding, which brought in $11m in total. Motorola is also an investor in the company. Aura is using TSMC to produce its chips, which are fabbed at 250nm.

Aura plans to use that money to develop the next generation of LibertyLink, which will support stereo audio, something Bluetooth as yet does not. Cui said Aura believes audio will be short-range wireless' 'killer app'. He reckons near-field can give other PAN technology a real run for their money from both a usability perspective.

Cui pledged the magnetic technology was safe to use alongside sensitive magnetic storage systems, such as hard drives. And with such a short range, it's effectively secure, operating within a "communications bubble", as Cui calls it. That said, we can't help but wonder at the prospect of nearby wireless MP3 player owners listening in on each others' playlists - and potentially digitising what they hear.

Aura is already selling a mono audio and voice system, LibertyLink Voice, which is currently being sold in the UK by European Telecom and in the US by FoneGear. ®

Bootnote

Long-time hardware watchers and Reg readers may remember Aureal Semiconductor, the audio chip developer which was Creative Technologies' (then called Creative Labs) key competitor and which battled long and hard with its rival over mutual patent infringement allegations.

Aureal eventually collapsed. Creative then acquired its erstwhile rival's assets for $32m.

Aureal's CEO was one Kenneth 'Kip' Kokinakis. Kip now finds himself President and CEO of Aura. And who is now one of Aura's investors? Why his old sparring partner, Creative Technologies... Who'd have thought it?

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