Lying Through Their Teeth

By Rachel Metz
Wired News

02:00 AM Apr, 11, 2006,70601-0.html

James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau remember when they decided to start lying. 
Or, as they prefer to put it, exaggerating.

It was just before lunch one weekday afternoon in late spring 2002. The 
press wasn't biting on their tech-art project -- the concept of a cell 
phone implanted in a tooth, which they were about to exhibit at the Science 
Museum in London.

A reporter had just called, but he lost interest after learning the implant 
was just an idea meant to stimulate conversation, not an actual invention. 
The two designers powwowed. Maybe, they thought, the trick is to make it 
seem a little more real.

Fifteen minutes later, another reporter called, and at that moment the 
tooth phone transformed from conversation starter to probable product. Yes, 
they told the reporter, they were looking to build a prototype, and, yes, 
possibly have it available within a year.

That phone call launched a tech hoax whose brew of misrepresentation, 
obfuscatory articles and the internet created a media blitz that landed 
them on Time magazine's 2002 Best Inventions list.

But reporters didn't notice anything suspicious. They saw a good story with 
creative, technical and biological elements. Soon, the tooth phone was 
described in reports as a device "invented by British engineers" that 
"picks up a signal from a mobile phone or similar device within a one-metre 
range" and would let you "listen to music, even connect to verbal sites on 
the internet without anyone else hearing a thing." Wired News reported that 
the device "currently only works as a receiver." When the project's real 
goal was mentioned, as in a BBC article, it tended to be secondary to the 
speculation surrounding the purported product.

It started out as a graduate-school project for the Royal College of Art, 
but the tooth phone -- officially the audio tooth implant, as the idea only 
called for audio input -- became an international phenomenon.

Wired News learned of Auger and Loizeau's true intentions while researching 
an article on similar technologies. In response to an e-mail request for an 
interview, Loizeau explained they were not developing it and that it had 
been used as a debate catalyst.

In an era where media fraud has become easier to catch and diffuse, the 
media is itself a victim of fraud or exaggeration, perhaps more often than 
it would like to admit. From a fake press release that caused Emulex's 
stock to tank in 2000, to 2004's toothing scandal and the recently revealed 
faked stem-cell research results, hoaxes happen. And sometimes, those that 
are uncovered retain their status as truth for a long time.

Loizeau and Auger admitted to stretching the truth, but Auger also said 
many details in articles were fabricated by reporters. And they don't feel 
badly about manipulating the media, which they said didn't express much 
skepticism about the product.

At a museum press conference, "there was only one man, a cameraman, who 
came up to us and told us what he thought we really were. He said, 'You 
ain't fucking scientists,' basically," Loizeau said.

It's easy for anyone viewing the images and video of the Science Museum's 
exhibit to imagine calls coming soon to a mouth near you. A model skull 
sports shining LEDs from chin to brain, and a clear, resin tooth at its 
center houses a dark chip -- a part pilfered from an old television set, 
Loizeau said.

They also had a plastic cocktail stick connected remotely to a 
walkie-talkie. One person spoke into the mouthpiece; the other clenched the 
stick in their teeth to hear their friend's voice internally. This 
demonstrated the sound transduction through bone conduction behind the implant.

"As soon as you heard sound in that manner you absolutely believe in the 
tooth implant because the quality of the sound is incredible," Auger said.

Time magazine was convinced -- it featured a thumbnail of the resin tooth 
on its Nov. 18, 2002 cover and said the implant was available as a "prototype."

In response to queries as to how the tooth ended up on Time magazine's best 
inventions list, staff writer Anita Hamilton, who worked on the article, 
wrote in an e-mail: "Time is not selecting the best retail products, we are 
recognizing the concept and technology behind these inventions. Many 
inventions never see the light of day, and we are aware of that. We do, 
however, try to keep the number of pie-in-the-sky items to a minimum to 
ensure balance in the mix."

Auger said no one from the magazine asked to speak with them about the 
tooth phone.

Alex Boese, a hoax expert and author of two books on the subject (one of 
which mentions the tooth phone), said the tooth tale should have raised 
hoax alarms.

"To me, right away, you would think, 'Is this real?'" he said.

Alan MacCormack, an associate professor at Harvard University who teaches 
managing innovation and product development, said the tooth phone saga 
could get researchers thinking outside the box.

"It may not be realizable in the near future, but if somebody started to 
put a few resources toward investigating it, who knows what it might lead 
to?" MacCormack asked.

But Auger and Loizeau measure success by reactions to their idea, not the 
venture capital money (which Auger said they turned down) that stemmed from 
the swell of media coverage. What gratifies them are the hundreds of 
e-mails they received from people (including several dentists) interested 
in learning more, and a Slashdot mention that garnered 437 comments.

"We never imagined it would become quite as big as it did at the time," 
Auger said. "But if we look back at our original motivation it was a 
fantastic success."

George Antunes, Political Science Dept
University of Houston; Houston, TX 77204
Voice: 713-743-3923  Fax: 713-743-3927
antunes at uh dot edu

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