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Near-field magnetic communications an alternative to Bluetooth

Although Aura Communications Inc. executives maintain that the company’s technology is merely an ancillary part of the massive wireless industry, the potential of the company’s offerings is certainly noteworthy.

Founded in 1995, Aura is a fabless semiconductor vendor. The company sells chips to electronics manufacturers that support near-field magnetic communications. Rather than using radio-frequency technology to transmit voice conversations, Aura’s technology uses low-power magnetic induction. The result, the company said, is a wireless headset that creates a secure “personal bubble” for conversations and is almost half the price of similar Bluetooth offerings.

“We don’t really think of it as competing with Bluetooth,” explained Chip Marshall, Aura’s chief operating officer. “It’s just an alternative.”

Both Bluetooth and near-field magnetic communication technology allow users to conduct conversations using wireless headsets. Such headsets eliminate the need for phone juggling (a potentially deadly activity while driving) as well as the wires associated with most hands-free headsets. However, that’s where the similarities between Bluetooth and near-field magnetic technology end. While Aura’s offering supports only voice conversations, Bluetooth can transmit both voice and data. Further, Aura’s magnetic induction technology only works within a range of about four feet whereas Bluetooth works over several dozen feet.

Marshall explained that the key to Aura’s offering is twofold: it is inexpensive and it does not suffer from RF interference. Aura’s technology generates a modulated magnetic field, and information can pass from one point in the field to another through magnetic induction. Thus, Marshall said, the system creates a secure communications bubble rather than a propagated radio wave.

More importantly, users can purchase headsets using Aura’s technology for around $75, while Bluetooth headsets typically sell for as much as $150. An Aura-based headset can achieve up to 25 hours of talk time and 3 months of standby time. Aura’s technology can also work with almost any phone, wireless or cordless. Users can purchase a base station that clips to the phone, and then a small headset that clips to the ear.

“From an opportunity standpoint, it’s twice the opportunity of cellular,” said Fred Creamer, vice president of marketing and sales for FoneGear, one of two companies that sell Aura-based headsets in the United States. Creamer explained that the company can sell headsets for both wireless and cordless phones, although some devices such as Nokia Corp. handsets require an adapter.

“It’s truly universal,” Creamer said, adding, “It’s pretty simple to operate.”

Aura’s Marshall said the company is taking a bottom-up approach to the market. Instead of working to get the company’s technology approved by various standards bodies, Aura is selling it directly to end users.

“What we’re looking for is to establish this as a de facto standard,” Marshall said.

The company is selling its near-field chips to FoneGear and Reason Products in the United States, which are in turn selling Aura-based headsets to end users. Marshall said Aura is also in discussions with various cordless-phone makers to install the technology directly into cordless phones. Marshall said the company is also looking to sell its chips to the world’s mobile-phone makers but said those plans are still in the early stages.

“I think it’s more of an accessory play” in the wireless handset market, Marshall said.

Aura to date has raised $20 million in venture funding from the likes of Motorola Ventures, Pilot House Ventures and others. The company, based in Wilmington, Mass., counts 24 employees. Interestingly, Sony Corp., Royal Philips Electronics and Nokia Corp. are promoting a similar technology, and they recently formed the Near Field Communication Forum to advance the effort. However, the companies are primarily promoting their technology as a way to link various consumer electronics devices in order to share data, rather than as a short-range communications field.

Marshall said Aura’s next main area of focus will be music devices such as portable MP3 players. He said the company will later this year offer a chip that will support the transmission of audio content like music.

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