Play MP3s on Cassette

SAN FRANCISCO (03/23/2000) - MP3 tunes are great when you're hooked to your PC or if you have a portable player. But don't you wish you could play your MP3 tunes on your car's cassette player, or that old-but-still-serviceable Walkman?

A method is in development, and it won't involve laborious conversions from MP3 to .wav and dubbing to cassette tapes.

SmartDisk this week demonstrated a prototype of FlashTrax, which at first glance resembles a conventional audio cassette. The difference is a slot in its side, where you can slide a flash memory card that holds standard MP3 files.

FlashTrax should be available by this fall, SmartDisk representatives say. It is expected to come in two configurations: as an accessory to existing portable MP3 players, and in a complete package with software and hardware for recording onto flash memory cards, as well as onto the cassette.

It's too early to specify pricing, although a SmartDisk spokesperson says the complete package is expected to sell for "well below the street price" of portable MP3 players (which currently cost in the $175 to $250 range).

The technology behind FlashTrax is sophisticated and protected by several patents, says Douglas Kraul, SmartDisk's vice president of audio/video products. The process isn't simple, because today's cassettes and cassette decks are more complex than they appear, he adds.

Copying Tape

First, the FlashTrax had to be designed to mimic the mechanical behavior of an audio cassette, Kraul says. It has to handle such familiar functions as music search, play, and pause, Kraul says.

Then, the digital MP3 data in the flash card has to be converted to the analog audio that a cassette deck uses. In a conventional audio cassette, the changing magnetic field on moving tape induces current in the cassette deck's read/write head. The electronics in the deck further interprets the signal, which is finally heard as music.

FlashTrax uses a transducer to emulate the behavior of moving tape, although details are proprietary, according to the company.

One thing FlashTrax won't be able to do is compete head-on with the low cost of conventional audio cassettes. The flash memory cards FlashTrax requires (also widely used in digital cameras) remain on the expensive side, although prices may eventually fall. A 16MB flash memory card, which stores about 30 minutes of CD-quality MP3 files, currently costs about $50. The 32MB versions average $85, and 64MB versions are in the $150 range.

Still, the pairing of the popularity of MP3 and the ubiquity of cassette players is something SmartDisk is banking on. They're hoping FlashTrax will become a must-have for computer music aficionados.

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