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Soundbug turns flat surface into speakers

The desks are alive with the sound of music at the CeBIT show in Hannover, Germany, as Olympia launches a gadget that will turn most any flat surface into a speaker.

It may be more famous for making typewriters, but Olympia has just revealed what some observers are calling one of the sexiest gadgets of this year's CeBit: a small device that can turn pretty much any flat surface into a soundboard.

The Soundbug can be plugged into the headphone socket of, for example, an MP3 player or a Walkman and then fixed by suction to the flat surface--effectively turning a desk or window into a speaker.

Set to go on sale in the U.K. for $42.60, the Soundbug--which is roughly the same size as a computer mouse--will be targeted at the youth market, but it is likely to appeal to a much wider range of technology users.

"We spoke to plenty of children when we were designing the Soundbug, and they all really wanted to know when they'd be able to buy one," Richard May, Olympia's president, told ZDNet UK.

The sound quality achieved by Soundbug is impressive, especially when the device is attached to a thick piece of a dense material--such as a desk. It's even possible to daisy-chain two Soundbugs together to achieve stereo sound, even when both are stuck to the same surface.

The Soundbug was developed in partnership with Newlands Scientific, a commercial research company that was spun off from Hull University.

The Soundbug transmits the sound to the flat surface by way of a small piece of Terfenol, which is a mixture of rare earth metals and iron. This substance is placed within an aluminum case, around which is wrapped a coil. Passing electricity through the coil causes the piece of Terfonal to slightly expand, resulting in a force of 400 pounds, explained Newlands Scientific managing director Brian Smith.

Once attached to a flat surface, Soundbug will transmit electronic signals into mechanical energy, causing the flat surface to vibrate and broadcast the sound.

Smith told ZDNet UK that there are many exciting applications for this technology, which is called magnetostriction. In theory, it could create noise-insulating windows that could block out the sound of traffic.

Olympia also demonstrated a mobile phone version of Soundbug that will be aimed at business workers. The device can be stuck to a car windscreen, meaning that drivers can have a hands-free conversation without having to wear a headset. It could be on sale by the end of this summer, and May said the company is aiming for a price of $71.

A high-end conference phone version is also being developed that would mean everyone seated around a table would be able to hear the phone conversation equally clearly.

For now, though, the focus is on the launch of Soundbug next month.

"We're hoping that Soundbug will be the No. 1 product on children's' Christmas present list," May said. "Just imagine what the school bus could be like," May said.

Graeme Wearden reported from London.