A company called Unwired Technology LLC has developed wireless technology that enables passengers to simultaneously receive up to four stereo or eight monaural channels connected to a vehicle’s entertainment systems. It’s called ‘WhiteFire’ and the company claims it is a major breakthrough, enabling passengers to select audio from various inputs such as DVD movies, CD players, video games, Internet devices, radios, or other devices installed in their vehicles. We questioned the company’s president, Lawrence Richenstein, about WhiteFire’s prospects.

Unwired Technology claims to be the world’s largest supplier of wireless headphones to the automotive market. The first product to employ WhiteFire technology will be an unwired-branded wireless headphone system for the automotive aftermarket, slated for release near the end of 2002.

What the company terms a  ‘select group’ of Unwired’s OEM customers are expected to introduce similar systems under private label in early 2003.  However, the company says that it is planning to aggressively license WhiteFire technology to manufacturers of other entertainment devices as well, particularly those employing a Digital Signal Processor (DSP) such as automotive head units (automotive radios) and home stereo systems.

Each WhiteFire-equipped wireless headphone contains a channel selector button that shifts from one audio source to another and four LEDs that indicate which channel is currently being used.  Unwired says that WhiteFire technology delivers high quality, digital mono or stereo sound that enables users to enjoy a variety of channels in much the same way as entertainment systems found on commercial airliners.

“Today’s passenger vehicles, particularly SUVs and vans, are rolling entertainment centres containing a broad range of video and audio products,” said Lawrence Richenstein, president of Unwired Technology.  “With the overwhelming popularity of such systems, vehicle owners are looking for ways to allow passengers to listen to, and switch between, different devices.  WhiteFire gives people the ability to enjoy the entertainment they want, when they want it, without affecting other passengers.”

We put some questions to Lawrence Richenstein, president of Unwired Technology.

J-A: What are the main components of the WhiteFire system?

LR: The headphones and the transmitter. The transmitter consists of two parts. The encoder box can be eliminated when an audio source’s DSP is embedded with WhiteFire code.

J-A: How much has WhiteFire cost Unwired Technology to develop and when did development work begin?

LR: Development began in early 2000. As a private company we would rather not divulge the cost of development.

J-A: How big do you think the market is for this kind of product?

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The market is huge. This year two million wireless headphones will be sold into the automotive market and this number could grow to ten million units in the next five years. Interest in WhiteFire has been fantastic. We are confident that WhiteFire will prove to be the major format for all automotive headphones with initial sales in the aftermarket in ’03 and the OEM market in mid ’04 (for model year ’05 vehicles).

J-A: How fast are rear seat entertainment units growing?

LR: Very fast, but I have no data to hand.

J-A: What about markets outside of North America?

LR: We are beginning to deliver wireless IR headphones for use in vehicles in ’02 and this is just the start of the business. We also have delivered headphones to Australia where the market is in its infancy. The market in Asia has not really started yet, but could begin in ’03.

J-A: Will it be mainly aftermarket to begin with? How do you expect the OE market to develop and are there particular manufacturers that you are working especially closely with, or who you consider to be leaders?

LR: Yes to the first question. The market for wireless headphones is well developed in the US already, and as already stated, we see WhiteFire in the OE market beginning in ’05 model year.  Remember that Unwired already has at least 80% market share worldwide. Therefore it is not a stretch to think that we will have support from the OE market for WhiteFire, the only multi-channel format available.

J-A: Are there competitors to WhiteFire?

LR: Not that we are aware of.

J-A: What’s the wholesale – factory gate – cost of the system units?

LR: In the US, the first aftermarket system with transmitter (encoder box and emitter) and two headphones, is initially set to retail for $600. Unwired is working on ASIC chips which will reduce the cost of both the headphone and transmitter by the end of 2003.

J-A: How many units do you expect to produce in the first year of production?

LR: We’re not sure. We’re not concerned as we are looking only to prove the product works and is wanted at the very high end of the market. In ’04 the market will expand with estimated sales of more than 200,000 systems.

J-A: And medium term?

LR: For calendar year ’06 we expect over 1.5 million systems will be sold.

J-A: How do you see this technology developing? Do you have ideas for next generation WhiteFire?

LR: Yes. Two-way WhiteFire will come in late ’03 or early ’04, for telematic headsets. Digital remote controls with special functions are also a possibility. We also see the market for WhiteFire multiple-driver headphones for true home theatre sound from a headphone (for home or auto) and the development of wireless 5.1 or 7.1 WhiteFire speaker systems for the home. There are other data applications besides audio as well.

WhiteFire Automotive Digital IR Headphone Transmitter Options

A:  Encoder Box

click here to enlarge diagram

B:  DSP Embedded Encoder

click here to enlarge diagram

As an economical and efficient alternative, the WhiteFire proprietary source code can be embedded in an audio device’s DSP.  This will eliminate the need for the encoder box and will permit the audio source (i.e. automotive head unit) to be directly connected to the emitter.  By adding only the low cost of the emitter, the DSP-equipped audio source can become a multi-source digital transmitter compatible with all WhiteFire headphones.