An E-Interview with
Robert Austin
Mind Machine Pioneer, Researcher and Developer

By Michael Landgraf of the AVS Journal

Editors Note: This is the first email-interview in what will become a continuing quarterly feature; with future email interviews highlighting other manufacturers, researchers, light / sound retailers and everyday people who use AVS.

I asked Robert to be a part of this first e-interview because there are a lot of Orion, ThoughtStream, Proteus, Voyager and Mind's Eye owners in this world. Here is your chance to learn a little about the person who manufactures those instruments, and read what some of his thoughts are about light and sound technology.

Q: What was your first experience with a light/sound instrument like? When was that and which instrument did you use?

A: "My earliest such experiences took place in the early ‘70s, and involved the use of strobe lights with music. I developed a strong interest in the nature of consciousness and altered states of consciousness while in college in the mid-70s, and during that phase had read W. Gray Walter's excellent book "The Living Brain," in which he described his experiments with driving a strobe light with human EEG (and this was published in the mid-50s!). My interest in the possible use of light and sound as consciousness altering technology was re-ignited when a friend suggested that I try one of the $4000 machines that had just appeared on the market, and I remembered how powerful the experience could be. That must have been around 1986. My next step was to construct two machines for my own use, with the goal of doing away with that machine's requirement that someone else actually control the experience, and this eventually led to the development of the original Mind's Eye system, which we released in 1988."

Q: How soon after building those two machines did you realize you wanted to get into the manufacturing of light/sound instruments? How did the name "Synetic Systems" originate?

A: "There were two reasons for me to start manufacturing light and sound instruments. The first was that the various friends I showed the Mind's Eye prototype to all insisted that they wanted one! The second was that I had spent several years developing electronic prototypes with the goal of going into business myself, only to find that large companies would enter the market just as I finished the prototype. So I felt that I would be filling a need by offering the (as far as I know) world's first programmable light and sound machine at a competitive price. We built 100 of them and sold out within two months, far faster than I had expected! At one point I actually built an attachment to my Amiga computer, driven by software, but decided not to release that as I felt that the Amiga had too limited a market (a supposition which obviously has not slowed Chuck Davis down!)."

Q: How often do you personally experience a light/sound session? Any favorite? Do you simultaneously utilize other modalities such as biofeedback or tactile stimulation and motion during sessions?

A: "My personal usage varies dramatically. During the first four or five years I used our equipment quite a lot, then dropped off as I spent more time meditating, or simply working (there were a lot of 80 to 100 hour weeks along the line). Recently I've been using the Proteus a lot because the intense color-shifts provide a much more compelling and profound experience. I've also spent a lot of time with the biofeedback driven systems we've prototyped, especially EEG driven systems, which we've been working with off and on since 1990. I'm personally convinced that multimodal biofeedback/ database-driven light sound systems will become the most powerful form for this technology, and kudos to Chuck Davis for actually marketing such a system, despite the fact that the FDA regards such as medical devices and could swoop down on him at any time, as they once did to us.

We haven't any forms of tactile stimulation, though this is an interesting concept; it would cost too much and the market would be therefore limited (this may not be the case if we had millions of dollars for marketing, though)."

Q: What's your definition of the perfect light/sound instrument? What would the Liteframes be like?

A: "It would include multiple forms of biofeedback, a large and carefully constructed multiuser database, lots of well-written software, and it would be internet driven. We're gradually working towards such a goal, but again money is always the controlling variable.

We've actually developed RGB Ganzfeld Liteframes (and filed a patent application for same), which I love! It's an eyes-open system, of course, which has its limitations, but when those pure, jewel-like colors fill your entire visual field, the effects are ‘way beyond anything else I've tried, including the Proteus. Sort of like a personal, portable, programmable Lumatron, and I'm sure there are a lot of color-therapy applications for such a device as well."

Q: What considerations should someone new to L/S take into account when purchasing their first L/S instrument?

A: "They should have some idea of what they want to do with it. If they just want to relax, energize, or experiment with learning enhancement, a preset system could do the trick. If they want to write their own programs and otherwise experiment in more detail, then they should select a system which supports their needs. Most manufacturers have a return policy, so they might want to order several and return the ones which don't perform as advertised. I'd also suggest that they take the claims of some manufacturers with a grain of salt or two, or try to locate any research to support some of their more extreme claims for any ‘special' features they offer!"

Q: What are the main differences between your instruments and those of other L/S manufacturers? Why should a customer consider a Synetic product?

A: "We've always tried to produce a balanced mixture of useful and innovative features at a low cost. Early on we decided to try to reach a larger audience and so have consistently produced systems at lower prices than our competitors; this has culminated in the Orion/Proteus series, which have proven extremely reliable and popular. The Orion in particular was intended as a sort of ‘Swiss army knife' and has appealed to casual and serious users. The Proteus is oriented more towards the serious experimenter, and was intended in part to give the field a little ‘kick' since essentially nothing new has been released by anyone for years. We also filed some patents this time, as what always occurred in the past is that other manufacturers would simply copy our innovations, and in at least one case proceed to claim that they had come up with them!

So a customer should purchase a Synetic product if they want an innovative, reliable and (with the latest generation) inherently upgradeable product from the company who has been making computerized light and sound equipment longer than anyone else in the world!"

Q: In 1991, the late Rob Robinson of InnerQuest told me the majority of his light/sound instruments were purchased by overseas customers. Do you see more of a balance between domestic and export sales today? How many light/sound instruments do you believe are sold annually -roughly? Over the years, approximately how many has Synetic sold?

A: "The domestic/overseas balance has varied a lot for us, and depends upon who is investing the most money in sales and marketing. Over the past year or two we've been selling about equally into both markets, and during the peak of US interest in light and sound in the early and mid-90s, we sold quite a few in the US. I'm afraid that the entry of Zygon into the field messed things up for the rest of us: aggressive and well-funded marketing, backed with shoddy products. According to their stock offering they sold $19 million worth of machines the year before they collapsed, but that probably doesn't take into account the 25% return rate they were seeing! Then, when the FDA zapped us (and what a surprise that was) in 1994, we simply abandoned the US market for a period of time.

I don't really have a clear idea of the present size of the light/sound market, but would guess that worldwide it must be in the $15-$50 million range, with a strong emphasis on Asian sales. Synetic has sold more than 300,000 machines over our time in business, and with our low-price strategy have managed not to make much money despite that level of sales!"

Q: You have participated in many research studies utilizing light/sound. Is there one study in particular that left an indelible impression on you?

A: "I would have to say, the SBIR-funded studies utilizing our EEG-driven L&S system to treat Attention Deficit Disorder. We actually saw verbal IQ boosts of roughly ten percent in these studies, and I think the potential as a replacement for Ritalin is quite large. We're still working on that one!"

Q: I have often been asked if there is a combination EEG/light and sound unit available and understand you have been experimenting with just such an instrument. Can you tell us a little about it and when we can expect to see it on the market?

A: "It's true -we actually have an inventory of a design we created as a research tool. We've recently established a venture with Dr. Harold Russell's firm, and will seek FDA approval for treatment of ADHD with a similar system."

Q: What do you believe are the most important issues facing the light/sound industry today?

A: "It still inhabits a kind of ‘fringe'. For some of us, that's part of its charm: light and sound can induce some pretty intense altered states of consciousness, and I've always seen the technology as one of the more powerful tools for exploring those states. But, in order to become ‘legitimate' there will need to be more studies, and it's really hard to get funding (as we've discovered) unless you are trying to ameliorate a medical problem. Trouble is, once you take that approach and develop something with medical applications, you can't bring it to market without FDA approval, at least in the US. But assuming you can obtain that approval, the technology is now controlled, and available for only certain indications, and I'd hate to see light and sound devices becoming available only by prescription. So, the big challenge in my opinion will be making it available to treat the medical conditions that it works for (and Len Ochs has shown that you can use it to treat severe depression and post traumatic stress disorder, Harold Russell and Larry Micheletti and others have shown that you can use it to treat attention deficit disorder, stroke and head injuries), while further developing the psychotherapeutic, stress-reducing, ASC- inducing, and just plain fun aspects that we all know and love."

Q: What do you see the future of light/sound being?

A: "Personal growth and self-exploration, psychotherapeutic, and medical applications. The field needs more research and more investment; the wackier claims and the companies making them should be banished, and there should be more cooperation and collaboration between the various manufacturers. We're all too small to be banging away at each other; why not form a ‘virtual corporation' and create a broad product line, rather than a series of ‘me-too' products? I've tried to do this on several occasions with no success. I mean, it's a bit strange when competing products actually look identical, don't you think?

I also think it is extremely important that these devices become embedded in a larger context. This is what Andrzej Slawinski (developer of Audiostrobe and Mental Games) and I are trying to do: integrate the technologies into a larger and broader training context, involving multimedia training software that's fully modular and extensible, and utilizes the considerable power of the internet and database technology."

To contact Robert Austin: Synetic Systems International, Inc. 170 Northwest 73rd Street. Seattle, WA. Phone: 206/632-1722. Fax: 206/632-1744. Web site: Please check out Robert's advertisement on the opposite page. When you visit his web site, look over the old Mega-Brain Reports. With Robert's acquisition of their copyrights, he plans to be posting more in the future.