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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

August 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM

Wireless hi-fi from Seattle’s Open Interface

It sounds like Bluetooth radio technology is finally starting to live up to some of its more exciting promises, like wirelessly moving high quality audio and video to and from mobile devices and around the home.

Seattle’s Open Interface plans to push that along further with a new lossless audio codec that it’s releasing today.

The company claims that its SOUNDabout Lossless codec compresses audio without degrading its quality, yet transports faster than Apple’s lossless format and the open source Free Lossless Audio Codec.

Because it doesn’t have significant lag time, SOUNDabout can be used in settings like a wireless home theater and won’t result in audio playing back slower than the images.

The codec will be offered to Open Interface customers such as chip manufacturers, who may use it to develop gadgets that could go on sale in a year or two.

The company demonstrated the software in a mock-up Tuesday using wireless surround speakers and the voices seemed synchronized, but I was watching a portion of “The Italian Job” that had subtitled Italian dialog so I couldn’t tell for sure.

One use of the technology could be in flat-panel televisions that come with wireless rear speakers, Chief Executive Tom Nault said. To set up the system, you’d only have to plug in your TV and plug the rear speakers into a power outlet.

The software may also be used in gadgets such as wireless headphones, but Open Interface sees the biggest opportunity in mobile devices that are increasingly becoming portable entertainment systems with audio and video storage and playback.

Nault said he’d like to be able to enter his office with his device (he’s now carrying an iPhone) and have the audio automatically play back through Bluetooth speakers, instead of headphones, without taking it out of his pocket and setting it into some sort of dock.

“We think wireless is part of the evolution of the dock,” he said.

Open Interface is pretty low profile, even though lots of people are using phones and other devices that include its software. It produces a software stack that chip manufacturers such as Qualcomm use to add Bluetooth capabilities to devices such as Apple’s iPhone, Motorola’s Razr and LG’s Chocolate music phone.

Open Interface started here in 2000. The company was initially an offshoot of a Japanese company that hired Akemi Sagawa, a Microsoft product marketing manager, to launch its U.S. subsidiary.

In 2004 the company was spunoff and is now 80 percent owned by its 25 employees. Most of the rest is still held by the Japanese company.

Sagawa, now the company president, is one of several former Microsofties, including Greg Burns, chief technology officer.

Burns said the company’s background in writing efficient, low-power software for mobile devices influenced the codec design, which is less processor-intensive than codecs developed initially for personal computers.

Open Interface is simultaneously working on technology that uses Bluetooth with Wi-Fi to transport high-definition video wirelessly. It demonstrated a prototype at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, and plans to present its latest stuff at the next CES in January.

UPDATE: Nault told me that although it may take one or two years for companies to develop an entirely new product, the new codec could appear in products within a few months because it only requires a software upgrade.

Comments | More in | Topics: Gadgets & products

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