Transmitting data-over-sound is about more than just smartphones

How can businesses harness the full potential of of sound in order to facilitate communication between humans and all machines?

Today’s sound technology landscape encompasses multiple methods of transmitting information between people and machines including, but not limited to —  fingerprinting (content-based audio identification), watermarking (modifying an original piece of source material by layering additional information on top of it), and modulation/demodulation (audio data encoding). Then of course, there is voice recognition.

But harnessing the medium of sound to transmit data is only really a useful alternative to RF (Radio Frequency) options like WiFi and Bluetooth, when it is being used as the most appropriate solution to a particular problem. Using a sonic barcode ticket vs a QR code on a ticket to access an event for example, is unlikely to save the venue or the customer from the security queues.

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While a lot of players operating in the market focus on developing data-over-sound solutions for smart devices (and more specifically, smartphones), there is far more potential for this powerful communications medium beyond the smartphone, across a much broader range of devices and applications.

More platforms, more options

At present, the majority of modulation/demodulation technology providers only offer an inaudible ultrasound technology, and almost solely for smartphones or tablets, ultrasound itself is just a small subsector of modulation/ demodulation.

This itself is only a sub-sector of the wider data-over-sound sector as a whole, and the breadth of applications in which using ‘audible’ sound to transmit information may afford greater benefits than using just ultrasound.

And it is only by operating across a breadth of supported platforms and audio protocols that data-over-sound technology moves beyond simply providing the facility to transmit information between smartphones and smart devices.

In fact it is often the application of this technology to enable low powered chips and legacy devices to enter into conversation with humans, smart devices, and each other that are potentially the most exciting in the age of the Internet of Things.

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Data-over-sound technology is already being used to power communications between devices running on low powered chips and legacy, analogue devices without traditional networking capabilities. To illustrate the point, here are some existing use cases for data over sound technology that involve more than just smartphones:

• To monitor equipment in sensitive, safety critical nuclear environments in which traditional Radio Frequency based networking technologies including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and NFC are prohibited.

• To provide a low cost payment and loyalty solution to independent coffee shops by playing simple wav files from a low cost POS ‘box’, with no screen required

• Used by Activision Blizzard in the largest toys-to-life video game Skylanders – played by tens of millions worldwide – for the purpose of sharing data, securely and totally offline, from the game itself to a companion iOS and Android app.

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• To activate a physical action in a toy from broadcast media, as Hijinx did with official Beat Bugs toys, allowing them to sing along ‘in sync’ with the characters on the Emmy-award winning Netflix TV series.

Moving beyond ultrasound

In addition to the much wider range of devices and media that support audible protocols and the larger payloads that can be delivered using audible data transfer protocols, there is an increasing demand for very human, honest and transparent qualities that ‘hearing the data being transferred’ delivers.

Perhaps more crucially though, is the limitations of ultrasound communication protocols, when it comes to their use in media. Some are of the impression that overlaying ultrasound on either a terrestrial or streaming broadcast will enable the delivery of content using sound (for example, offers or promotions from ads) from the broadcast to apps running on smartphones or even low powered devices running on chips.

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A key consideration here is the impact that video and audio compression techniques can have on overlaid ultrasound — namely, most broadcasters and streaming platforms strip this out entirely to improve streaming.

Innovation for innovation’s sake?

While harnessing sound to transmit information between smartphones does indeed enable a number of compelling uses, there are certainly considerations that limit the practicalities of focusing on this when examining where data-over-sound technology is at its most useful.

The most compelling uses of data-over-sound technology are those in which organisations are not innovating for innovation’s sake, rather working with technology providers to harness the unique affordances of sound in innovative ways to solve their problems most effectively.


Sourced from Moran Lerner, chief executive officer of Chirp

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...

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