Innovative technology: Sharing Data Through Sound

From smartphones to industrial machines – Chirp turns your devices into data transmitters

In a society that runs on data, transmission methods like Bluetooth, WiFi and optical fibres are incredibly important. However, as integral as these methods are, developers have begun to explore innovative new solutions for sending and receiving information.

At Chirp, that’s exactly what the team is doing – with sound. The London-based startup was founded in 2011, and uses multi-platform, ‘sonic barcodes’ to encode data into unique audio streams. This can be a small file or command, or a link  which gives access to a certain file or website. Any device with a speaker can transmit a ‘chirp’, and most devices with a microphone can decode them. By literally converting digital info into birdsong-like sound, the company has found an accessible, open solution to data sharing that is developed entirely in-house.

DISRUPTIONHUB spoke to Chief Technology Officer James Nesfield about the disruptive potential of audio transmission, as well as its place in the relentless expansion of connectivity.

Why transmit data via sound?

Sound is ubiquitous. It’s our primary method of communication, and surrounds us constantly in our everyday lives. By sending data via sound, users know exactly when the transmission is happening, which makes it far more trustworthy than invisible digital alternatives.

“Sound is pretty much everywhere,” says James, “There are billions of devices which already have the hardware required to send audio. Pretty much anything with audio capabilities, even without additional technology, can now send and broadcast data.”

According to James, it’s all about finding a simple, seamless solution that includes a wide range of devices – not just the latest technology. Enabling compatibility with legacy systems and established audio technology makes it even easier to send and receive more data.

“Any device just needs to be within earshot. So, you could send a piece of information from one to another, or to thousands of devices in one room. There’s no extra cost or burden because it’s just sound. If you’re within earshot, you receive the data.”

Instead of replacing traditional data mediums like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, Chirp envisions audio as collaborative or assistive technology. Despite this, sound has clear advantages in certain situations. James’ example is sensitive data, as both the sender and recipient will want to be certain that the information has been transferred successfully. As well as this, audio cuts through the process of searching for devices. “When you want to receive a piece of information from a smart meter at home or an industrial control meter, all you need to do is stand next to it.”

Applications of audio transmission

One of the most obvious uses for audio transmission is in advertising and marketing. Ad campaigns could be sent via sound to masses of people, as part of their customer experience. It’s a useful distribution tool for marketers, too.

“When the user gets a promotion, their phone becomes a re-transmission device,” says James, “You effectively have a chain going from the brand to the users and from the user to multiple other people.”

Chirp originally focused on mobile-to-mobile applications, which has carried over into their work today. Indian bus company Shuttl, for instance, have replaced their QR codes with audio barcodes that make the boarding process more efficient. The technology could also be used to send info in any working environment, with particular advantages for manufacturers who want to keep tabs on productivity. For James, the most exciting thing about the technology is that it is use-case agnostic.

“What’s absolutely fascinating is when people come to us and say, ‘Could we use Chirp for this?’, and we’d never thought of it. It’s very rewarding to see people doing things with the technology that we never anticipated.”

In nuclear power stations or other safety critical or RF-restricted environments, online connections can play havoc with sensitive signals between machinery, which makes offline audio transmission the perfect way to share information without affecting the existing infrastructure.

Sending data via sound is widely applicable, inclusive and above all simplistic. But according to James, the team at Chirp constantly look to increase their data rates and improve the reach of their product. “We’ll never be satisfied. We’re always investing in our core research and engineering to increase data rates and reliability.”

How will audio transmission disrupt data sharing?

In short, audio transmission will make it easier to share data. One application in particular which highlights this is the use of Chirp barcodes in place of WiFi passwords. There’s potential for unique sonic barcodes to replace passwords in other situations too – perhaps as a security measure.

Whilst there’s an exhaustive list of industries that could adopt audio transmission, especially those which need to send wide-reaching messages, developments often emerge from consumer use. When Chirp released their Skylanders project alongside Activision, they unintentionally gave users the power to send their characters to a mass audience via YouTube and other audio video sharing sites. “Our project brief was to transfer characters from TVs to laptops, tablets and smartphones using sound. Mission achieved,” says James, “However, users quickly realised that sound was the mechanism for data transfer and they used Twitch and YouTube to send characters to anyone watching the game footage. We didn’t plan for that, but it plays into quite a unique strength of sound – it’s portable.”

This mobile capability has the potential to completely change the way that society shares information, whether that be a game character or vital workplace diagnostics. It takes data out of the dark, transforming it into something tangible that the majority of people are familiar with.

It’s also a massive enabler for the Internet of Things, in essentially any given environment. “There’s all manner of radio frequency protocols coming out to support IoT. The reason for this is because there’s such a zoo of different things that all have slightly different requirements in terms of connectivity. All of this makes a mosaic of connectivity that IoT can take advantage of.”

As compatible as Chirp may be, alternative data sharing will still present a challenge to established methods by opening up a new market for alternative information broadcasting. Despite the emergence of competitors, James is modestly confident about the quality of Chirp’s solution.

“There’s no-one else with the scientific and research background that we have and the many years of R&D ploughed into this problem.”

Audio transmission clearly provides a data sharing medium that is inclusive, scalable and widely applicable. However, companies should be aware of some important issues in order to take advantage of the market. Data protection, for instance, is an ongoing issue which needs consideration by audio data developers and their clients. There’s also the technological challenge of splitting the data from the distortions caused by background noise, which currently sets Chirp apart from potential competitors. It’s not hard to see why Chirp are the clear forerunners in the market. By pairing years of R&D with an open approach to customer behaviours, the startup has positioned itself as a leader in innovative data solutions. Ultimately, the main factor behind their success, and perhaps the biggest advantage of sound as a transmission method, is simplicity.

“A technology which is intrinsically simple has growing importance in an increasingly complicated networking environment,” says James, and he’s right.

Could your business apply audio data transmission? Which other industries could benefit from sending information via sound? What other alternative methods are there for sharing data? Share your thoughts and opinions.