A sound business
Publication Date: Wednesday May 22, 1996

A sound business

Name: Scott Foster, CEO and founder

Business name, address: Crystal River Engineering makes virtual reality audio hardware. The Palo Alto office is located at 490 California Ave., Suite 200. There is also a Groveland office, near Foster's home.

Size of company: Foster's 13-person company is in the process of becoming a subsidiary of Aureal Semiconductors, "a fairly small company (50 people) that focuses in particular on audio licensing technology and making (computer) chips." Foster will become a vice president of Aureal and the general manager of Crystal River Engineering.

Why the company is unique: "We produce virtual reality in its auditory form." In other words, they create 3-D sound systems that mimic the experience of hearing different kinds of noises from different locations, rather than the "2-D" sound of a radio. Current clients are in the entertainment, flight training, research and telecommunication industries.

What I used to do for a living: "My whole career has been about audio. It's funny how that works." While working at Atari, Foster led a team that designed a music synthesizer. He worked as a research engineer at Hewlett-Packard, where he began researching and writing papers on 3-D sound, but the company didn't support his work, he said.

Why I went out on my own: "I had a technical dream and no one wanted to pursue my dream, so I started my own company to do it."

How long the company has been in business: Nine years.

Annual sales: $2,000,000

How I first got the idea for this: "It's always bugged me how a radio is kind of like being there but isn't. Two speakers became the standard in the 1950's, then four speakers . . . none of those are quite right." His system uses headphones and specialized computer technology.

How I sold my idea to others: NASA offered him a contract in 1987 to design the Convolvotron, a box that fit into PCs and was capable of taking sounds and placing them in space.

How I got financing: "Our first contract (with NASA) was for $22,000. We agreed I would design this thing for them, but I would keep the commercial rights."

Reason he decided to merge: "You need money behind an organization so you can make mistakes. The company had outgrown both my ownership and leadership."

How I get my creativity going: "I don't have a regimen. I have a brain that's always leaking ideas, my problem is controlling them and communicating them. . . . I've learned to listen to other imaginative people."

Biggest obstacle: "We were building a technology that you can't see, it's unusual, it's hard to describe. That's a real tough thing to do. How do you convince someone they need a technology they don't even have?"

A typical day in my business: Foster has been flying an airplane to work for nearly 10 years. "On a typical day, I'll get up, go to the Groveland office and work for 1 or 2 hours, fly in and spend most of my day in Palo Alto talking to customers. Then in the late afternoon or early evening I'll fly back to Groveland."

Next big goal: "We're a fair ways away from (establishing) this notion of simulation as a standard. I want to leave this stuff on the planet, because it's an improvement."

Best piece of advice for other entrepreneurs?: "I never took a lick of business school, my education was purely technical . . . that has been our biggest failing. What we did was invent a technology and then asked, 'Does anybody want it?' It's vastly easier to find a need and then fill it."

--Lisa Gardiner 

Back up to the Table of Contents Page