Audioair Wants To Unlock Audio From Muted TVs Everywhere And Give Your Local Bar A New Way To Advertise

If you’ve ever been in a sports bar with your friends to watch a big game, you’ve likely run into the “muting” problem. While the bar may have two dozen TVs, each might be playing a different game, and there’s either too much sound or none at all. At most local restaurants, bars, airports and health clubs, you’ll find TVs muted for this very reason.

Some have opted to, say, put speakers on tables in their bars to project sound more directly, but the problem is that this puts a damper on any socializing you planned to do with your friends and fellow bar mates. Might just be me, but repeatedly yelling “WHAT DID YOU SAY?!” over the audio can detract from the viewing experience. After all, you’re really there to enjoy some quality time with friends — the thrilling play-by-play isn’t the only attraction.

Durango, Colorado-based Airborne Media is hoping to offer another solution with a new product called Audioair, which aims to turn smartphones into your own personal listening device to help unlock sound from the tens of millions of muted TVs out there. Essentially, Airborne wants to put its audio solution anywhere an un-muted TV would add to the location’s overall noise pollution — every airport, hospital, sports bar, stadium or health club in the U.S.

But how does it work, you ask? Users download Audioair’s free mobile app, which taps into the sound system (via Wi-Fi) at any Audioair subscriber location, allowing you to determine which TV you want to listen to, projecting the audio through your smartphone so you can listen from your pocket or through headphones. Airborne is currently piloting its solution at 47 sites, including sports bars, restaurants, student health facilities and even a large resort casino, and plans to be in 800 locations by the end of the third quarter.

To help get Audioair off the ground, the startup has raised $3 million in seed funding, $1 million of which is convertible debt, from a handful of local investors. But, let’s be honest, creating a personal audio channel for muted TVs has some appeal, but it could be subject to a fairly limited use case. It’s not difficult to imagine significant others and friends the world over not being particularly pleased when, in the middle of a conversation, you throw in your headphones to hear the local play-by-play.

Plus, Airborne has to convince enough restaurants that it’s a good idea to invest in their on-premise hardware and buy another TV for their in-venue display. How does it hope to accomplish that tall order?

Airborne believes that its technology can help change the consumer experience within a multitude of these noisy environments and bridge the gap between mobile devices and customer engagement displays. So, not only does it want to provide a better audio experience for the end user, it wants to act as an interactive social networking experience and dedicated, location-based advertising network for bars, restaurants and any local venue.

The service allows users to chat with other people in the venue directly through the Audioair app, along with checking-in and adding content from their phones to the sports bar’s local network. This adds a social networking element to the end-user experience; in the meantime, Audioair allows venues to display local advertising on the user’s phone or on a 42-inch digital display that they install in the bar.

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At the outset, the startup has been offering discounts on the cost of the TV (and the installations themselves) to reduce friction for early customer acquisition, but the idea is that — once/if this catches on, bars will be paying for the cost out of their own pockets.

Audioair charges a monthly fee, which will be an add-on to the fees bars are already paying to DirectTV and so on for cable, but the idea is that the product can help venues reduce the perceived (and actual cost) by helping them attract more customers who stay on the premises longer — because they can actually hear the sound of the game.

On top of that, bars can distribute on-site promotions through Audioair’s digital display and mobile app, facilitating increased spend, while engaging customers in an in-bar, interactive social and ad network.

Screen shot 2013-03-26 at 4.04.47 PMVenues can then share in the ad revenue gained from their displays, while receiving analytics on how customers are interacting, what they’re sharing and so on. They can also disseminate the needed info publicly or privately as needed (think personalized hospital, airport alerts).

The Airborne Media founders said that they see revenue coming from three buckets — advertising, installation and licensing — with revenue initially coming from subscription and installation and advertising revenue becoming the main stream over time. As to the licensing piece, the team says that they’ve filed for eight patents on their system (which are currently pending), which could help them manufacture some defensibility for a model that could become vulnerable to competition from big players as prices on hardware continue to drop.

Audioair also tries to sweeten the deal by providing an optional on-site server to manage the local, network and cloud-based content and, by splitting a portion of the advertising revenue with the owner, the startup wants to help them cover the cost of the subscription fee and grow their own revenues over time.

Screen shot 2013-03-26 at 4.03.40 PMThe Audioair creators also believe they have a leg up on the competition because it has inked a partnership deal with one of the original commercial DirecTV installers, which has exclusive territory rights to a big chunk of real estate — from Florida to Washington, D.C. It provides DirecTV service and support to over 5,000 restaurants and will be helping Airborne make installations throughout its territory, which the founders believe will be critical to helping it expand its footprint.

Again, it seems like a niche play, but if something like this is going to work, it could be a multi-pronged approach that’s not only an audio helper but a local information and advertising system, complete with hardware support and revenue sharing. There are 38,000 sports bars and restaurants in the U.S., 28,000 health clubs and plenty of airports, casinos and college campuses where Audioair could potentially have some appeal.

If the startup is able to keep its prices from stifling those venues that are willing to give it a try — and surmount the potential “this is too complicated” reaction from local venues — while offering real value-add on the advertising side (and some better design of its mobile interface), there’s a chance Audioair could have some real legs.