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by Mike Zazaian November 28, 2006 - 9:29pm, 6 Comments

An image of Sony's skin-powered headphones as seen in the patent filing

Engineers at Sony are developing a set of wireless headphones that use a person’s skin to transmit a signal between the headpiece and music source.

The current system uses two electrodes encased in fabric to send an electrical signal through the human body between 500 KHz and 3 MHz. According to the patent the electrode doesn’t have to be touching the body, but must be very close to it, such as in a pocket or on a belt clip. A signal travels through the user’s skin and is transmitted to another electrode on the headset, which then plays the audio signal as any pair of wired headphones would. The patent describes the device as:

A transmitter for generating [an] electric field by transmitting a potential difference signal corresponding to transmission data from a transmitting electrode; and a receiver for receiving the data by reading the potential difference signal in [an] electric field by a receiving electrode.

According to a representative at Sony the company initially sought alternatives to the peculiar skin-driven system, but these posed more problems than one would think. An infrared system would require sensors on both the headset and transmitter to be in direct line of sight at all times, posing a number of usage issues that could render the headset useless. IrDA systems (Infrared transmission protocol) can also malfunction when being used in daylight (the folks at Nintendo had to learn that one the hard way.

Sony also said that Bluetooth would be considered for such a wireless headset, but despite its popularity the protocol poses its share of problems as well. As Bluetooth can broadcast a signal to distances of up to 30 feet, eavesdroppers could easily listen in to whatever was being played on audio source that the transmitter is connected to. And even with deliberate interference, a Bluetooth headset could be easily disrupted by errant Bluetooth signals from other devices in the immediate vicinity.

As such Sony has taken the road less traveled, using the human skin for the first time ever as a transmission medium for consumer electronics. Whether consumers warm up to the notion of voluntarily sending electrical signals through their body remains to be seen, but it seems as though one key design flaw could make that a moot point.

As indicated earlier, the system must be close to or in contact with the human body in order for the signal to be effective. While this would be a very useful technology for athletes, whom might wear their audio devices on an arm band or similar thing, the headset is rendered useless for users who don’t stow their iPod on arm or in pocket. This appears to be a drastic price to pay in the interest of nixing a cable, which can only be so disruptive.

Perhaps Sony is aiming this one specifically toward nano-equipped joggers and similar folk. But even if that’s the case the whole thing begs the question — why not put out a product that’s suitable for everyone? The very entity of the Playstation 3 may prove this to be a question that Sony is incapable of answering.

Via ars technica
Check out Sony’s patent filing.