Technology Issue extra - From Music Vest to gravity power
Apr 23 2009
At the tender age of 16, Michael J. Waldron spent most of his spare time in Philly, buying up boxes of bootlegged eight-tracks. Once his van was full, he’d drive the them back home to Yardley, PA, where he'd sell them for a small profit at parking lot swap meets. When he wasn’t entrepreneuring, Waldron was teaching himself about electronics. He was obsessed with taking things apart, tinkering with their innards, and putting them back together again. It was only a matter of time before his two hobbies met and spawned one brilliant creation. In 1981, that creation was finally realized: the music vest. It was actually just a vest with a radio in the pocket and speakers in the shoulder, but at the time it was a pretty novel idea and its blueprint has since spawned shameless imitators like the Headphone Hat. Between '81 and '86 the Music Vest made a lot of noise, but it was silenced shortly thereafter due to a Cold War scandal. Seriously. We talked to him about that.
Vice: So once you had the prototype built, how'd you get the vest into stores?
Michael J. Waldron: I went up to Macy’s department store myself in New York City. I walked in-- this is so ballsy--I walked into the electronics section and I said, “Man, do I have a new product this store could really use!”
And of course you were wearing your prototype, right?
Oh yeah, I had the music playing. Within half an hour, I'm on the top floor with the CEO of Macy’s, and he's pushing his phone and calling in the head buyers. I had a contract within two days.
Sounds like the beginning of a movie Tom Hanks would make. But what department did they place it in? Do you put the music vest in electronics or clothes?
Right, that was a problem. I was cleaning that mess up all the time. You got to put it in electronics, but on new racks. It can't just sit in a box.
And did it take off?
It was just starting to be noticed in 1986. And then all of a sudden Toshiba gets in touch and says they want to take the vest to the next phase. We signed a deal. They set up a whole division called TOSBAX and produced something like 250,000 vests, started shipping them in from Japan, doing prints ads…
So the vest is poised to dominate.
And just as this is all starting to take off, Toshiba gets caught selling really sensitive electronic equipment to the Russians.
Oh, those Russians! They're always buying sensitive electronic equipment!
Yeah, it was equipment to silence their submarines so they could go undetected in the water. It was called the COCOM Affair. Man, Toshiba was involved in some heavy-duty microwave weird stuff. Consumer agencies and Congress banned them from importing their electronics for a while. The whole vest project had to be scrapped.
I'm surprised that there wasn't enough international demand for the vest to survive outside its home market. But let’s look to the future. Technology-wise, what do you think is next? There's been a lot of buzz around this “wireless” fad
But it’s still not here! I mean, the way I was talking to people in the industry--and these guys were from Japan--getting rid of wires was only a couple of years away. I thought by the year 2000 all that would have been solved. But 25 years later we’re not there yet. We’re still in such a barbaric era--there’s wires hanging from everybody.
So many wires. In the future, do you think robotics will become a threat?
It’ll be good for medicine. That’s how we’ll see cyborg people start. And then it will eventually morph into other stuff. But that won’t happen for another hundred years.
What about solar power?
The big thing is that they’re going to be able to harness gravity to power things. Gravity’s all around, day or night, inside or outside, you know what I mean? That’s what I envision as the main power source for the world. The one who comes up with the invention of gravity power will be the one who’s going to rule the world.
I love that idea. I mean, how do you run out of gravity? So do you think people will have music hard drives in their brain?
Yeah, I think eventually they’re going to have music in their brains. They’ll be able to take a thought and put it right into their irises and pupils so that you don’t even need a screen. It’ll be like a vision, a dream, where you can shut your eyes and have all this stuff flying through your mind. That’d be another neat thing, I’d like to have a machine where you can have all your dreams automatically recorded to watch the next day.
That would be great but there’d have to be a law against forcing your loved ones to watch it in the morning.
How many ideas do you have when you’re dreaming, or different things you’d like to remember, but you don’t? You just replay it the next day. That’d be a cool electronic product.
Very Kurzweilian. How else do you think electronics will manifest themselves in our bodies?
I think that just like how food and drugs actually penetrate your blood system and change you, I think electronics can do the same thing. They can change your thoughts, speech, vision, personality. You’ll be able to learn everything that’s possible to learn through an implant. You wouldn’t have to go to school, you wouldn’t have to read, everything would be implanted so it goes straight to your brain.
That’d be a little dangerous, no?
Oh, you think so?
Well who’s implanting it, where’s the source?
Right! And back at Factory X, on a Friday, some people were like, “Let's just play a joke, let's put a virus in this.” A virus doesn’t come out for five years, then all of a sudden millions of people all around the world are acting like lunatics, killing each other. Then some dude back at the factory is laughing, "That’s my virus, my killer virus.”
Back at Factory X?
Anything you can think about can actually happen. It’s getting closer and closer.
What else are you going to invent?
It’s all closed doors. Secret policy.
No general field?
I have an interest in energy, I’ll just leave it at that.
OK, but isn't it kind of depressing to be an inventor in our modern times, when everything cool has already been invented?
There’s billions of things out there, there’s more opportunities than ever before for someone who wants to invent something. My god, it’s an incredible time. Incredible time.