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Goodbye, passwords: Signing in using sound

(Image credit: Image Credit: Christiaan Colen / Flickr)

The buzz around data-over-sound technology has intensified as of late, with many now coming to realise the vast opportunities it holds for people and businesses alike, due to its ability to enable one-tap communication with nearby devices. 

We’re all familiar with the everyday frustration of entering Wi-Fi passwords: typing a cryptic jumble of alphanumeric characters on an undersized screen, often to be greeted with a dispiriting “Incorrect Password” dialogue. Even simple things like logging onto Facebook, Twitter or online banking require a myriad of text codes that you’ll inevitably enter incorrectly.

But there's good news: you can now connect to a Wi-Fi network, unlock a smart locker, or configure a new IoT device using nothing but sound.

Data-over-sound: a better way to connect

The world is becoming increasingly connected, and the need for everyday tasks to be made as frictionless and enjoyable as possible is growing daily. With this rising demand for simple and quick access in our ‘always on’ society, true value now lies in saving time. Adopting acoustic transmission technology can provide an effortless means of data transfer, letting you share information and connect to nearby devices quickly and easily.

Data-over-sound boasts substantial convenience improvements compared to other comparable connectivity solutions, given that the physical infrastructure needed to facilitate data transfer via ultrasonic waves is often already in place. From mobile handsets to IoT devices and the popular voice assistants of today, many devices of different form- and use-factors already have the necessary processor and speaker or microphone to initiate a sound-driven connection.

The technology holds further benefits from a cost standpoint, as devices owners can add additional functionality to their devices without the need for investment in physical upgrades to existing hardware or extra costs on a BOM.

The convenience of connecting with sound

There are various use cases that demonstrate the technology’s suitability for both business and domestic environments. Sound, which is naturally geo-locked, provides a seamless and secure means of connection to many widely used networks, all whilst alleviating many of the cumbersome processes often associated with signing in. One of its most prominent and convenient use cases, however, lies at the heart of the most frequently used forms of connectivity around the world: Wi-Fi.

Utilising a device’s speaker, the network ID and password can be securely transmitted and relayed to nearby devices via a microphone, which then grants access to the network. As long as you’re within hearing range  —  say, a few metres  —  it provides a secure and robust means of connectivity, entry or configuration, depending on the use case in question. After all, why enter a complicated code when your devices can simply speak to each other, without you typing a single digit?

In addition to speed and ease of use, an audio-based approach to authentication gives some other unique affordances. For example, step into the world of an network admin, who may only want people who are in their space to be able to access the network. The proximity parameters of data-over-sound means that the authentication process needed for sign-in can only take place when a person is physically co-located with an authorised device that can provide the credentials -- an effective way to prevent unknown users making a connection from outside a specific range. 

This means that, if you run a hotel, you can give access to your Wi-Fi network (signing on within their rooms, or in the hotel lobby) via a speaker in the room, whilst not requiring any cumbersome passwords. What’s more, if you limit each device to a 24 hour access period, you can even ask visitors to return to the lobby to re-authenticate each day to ensure your network is not compromised in any way.

Services that include a lengthy sign-in process are often ones which also require two-factor authentication, such as banking and other online accounts. This is another area where data-over-sound can add value and effectively address security concerns, whilst maintaining the technology’s signature ease of use. 

Every time a connection is initiated using data over sound, time-based, one-time passcodes like the ones now often seen within mobile banking apps can be generated and linked to the current timestamp. This ensures that the authentication code is not vulnerable to a replay attack - that is, being recorded and reused at a later date. Such security features reduce any opportunity for compromise to the service in use, and transform a pain point into a seamless interaction.  

Provisioning via sound: Solving a key IoT pain point

The technology’s sign-in capabilities also provide wider advantages for the Internet of Things. For example, data-over-sound makes the configuration process for new smart devices quick and effortless. As many early adopters of IoT have experienced, provisioning new devices can be intricate and error-prone, particularly if the device in question doesn’t have a user interface. The user is required to first take measures to transform it into a local hotspot, and subsequently to sign in via a counterpart laptop or smartphone to set the network credentials.

However, using data-over-sound can eliminate these complex and time-consuming steps. By taking Wi-Fi credentials that are already pre-cached on a user's mobile phone, translating them into an acoustic signal, and playing them to the nearby smart device, the user flow is simplified dramatically. The scope for errors is also reduced, which can be a major cause of frustration, particularly for non-tech-savvy users. When this is multiplied by multiple smart devices, this equates to some significant efficiency and cost savings.

With the number of IoT-enabled devices installed worldwide expected to soar to 31 billion by 2020, which Arm want to expand to a trillion by 2035, configuration through sound-enabled connectivity could enable huge time savings as more businesses become fully connected. 

The demand for instant and accessible services looks only set to continue, and companies must now find new ways to prepare their services for an increasingly digital future. Sound’s versatility as a means of connectivity offers huge potential to transform the way that many slow and painful sign-in tasks are completed, and enable a more seamless connected world for businesses and individuals alike. 

Daniel Jones, Chief Technology Officer, Chirp (opens in new tab)
Image Credit: Christiaan Colen / Flickr

Dan has numerous publications and patent filings spanning digital signal processing, audio and communications. His PhD applied high-performance computing to unanswered questions in computational biology. He now leads Chirp’s research into next-generation audio communication technologies.