s
s
Sections
Search
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
X

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Login

X

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

LoginSubscribe

PETALUMA At first glance, FrontRow hardly looks like a technology company.

There's a cubby in the reception area filled with balls and toys. Visitors wear badges that say "Hall Pass."

Brightly colored conference rooms are labeled "Principal's Office," "Science Room" and "Art Room." Company announcements are made on a big chalkboard.

The Petaluma company's new headquarters looks like a school because FrontRow's wireless audio technology is used every day in classrooms, making it easier for students to hear their teachers.

"It's important for all our employees to literally put themselves in our customers' environment," said Jens Holstebro, FrontRow's president. "Since it's impractical to bring all of our employees to the classroom, we'll bring the classroom to them."

FrontRow's re-creation of a classroom environment is part of the company's new direction, Holstebro said. Two years ago, the Petaluma business was called Phonic Ear, part of a giant Danish company, William Demant Holding A/S, which makes hearing aids, diagnostic instruments and sound systems.

Phonic Ear developed wireless sound technology for the hearing impaired. Teachers who used it in special education classes thought it would also help students with normal hearing.

Students spend about half of each day in listening activities, but they can miss 25 percent to 40 percent of what a teacher is saying, according to FrontRow.

Classrooms are "acoustically hostile" places where sound bounces off hard surfaces and outside noise can make it hard for students to focus, the company said.

Phonic Ear began developing systems for general classroom use and testing them in Sonoma County schools.

Two years later, its new FrontRow division has sold 55,000 systems worldwide. The battery-powered systems include a lightweight wireless microphone worn by the teacher and one to four small speakers mounted around the classroom.

The teacher's voice is picked up by sensors and distributed around the room. The systems cost $1,000 to $1,500 per classroom.

Teachers and school administrators say the technology creates a better learning environment because teachers don't have to raise their voices to reach students in the back row.

FrontRow is about to release its second-generation classroom sound system, with digital technology that cuts audio feedback, saves energy and requires no adjustments.

The company's new headquarters on Lakeville Highway is set up to encourage collaboration. While employees have their own desks, they also have individual rolling caddies that carry their materials to other locations for group work.

"We're making it very project-oriented, making sure there's a constant flow of knowledge," Holstebro said.

The space has large windows, few interior walls and a $100,000 Wi-Fi system for employees' laptops and wireless phones. It's modeled after William Demant offices in Denmark, Holstebro said.

"This is a knowledge-based organization," he said. "Our parent company has applied this philosophy for a decade or so."

The open office makes it easy to share ideas, said Jeff Shaw, a FrontRow marketing manager.

"It's great for collaborating," he said. "You don't have to send an e-mail and wait for somebody to reply. You can just turn around and ask."

There's also space for teachers to hold meetings and try out the technology. "We get the benefit of having teachers in our working environment," Holstebro said.

FrontRow posts about $22 million in annual revenue and has 75 employees in Petaluma, where it does engineering, testing, service, marketing and shipping. The business has about 40 workers in other parts of the world.

Front Row systems are manufactured in China, Taiwan and other Asian countries.

You can reach Staff Writer Steve Hart at 521-5205 or steve.hart@pressdemocrat.com.

Show Comment