It’s time for a sound revolution

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Sound technology today is having its moment in the sun. Traditionally, the landscape includes a number of methods of transmitting data between people and machines, such as watermarking (modifying an original piece of source material by layering additional information on top of it), fingerprinting (content-based audio identification), modulation/demodulation (audio data encoding) and finally, voice recognition.

Other players focus on developing data-over-sound solutions for “smart” devices –namely smartphones –but that’s only scratching the surface of its possibilities. This powerful communications medium can go far beyond the smartphone and be used across a much broader range of devices and applications.

However, as with any new technology, it’s important to only invest if it’s the best possible solution to the problem. Harnessing the medium of sound to transmit data can be a useful alternative to RF (Radio Frequency) options like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but in cases such as ticketing for an event, it’s unlikely a sonic barcode ticket will be more beneficial to the customer or venue than a QR Code on a ticket. Understanding the value sound technology can bring to a business starts with being aware of the various platforms, devices, and applications it can be used for.

The power of ‘any’ platform

Almost all sound technology providers only offer an inaudible ultrasound technology, and primarily for smartphones or tablets. Due to the fact that many speakers and microphones cannot emit or receive ultrasonic frequencies, ultrasound itself represents just a subset of modulation/ demodulation technology while audible sound has a much greater pool of applications taking advantage of any device that has a microphone and a speaker. So to truly have an effective solution that can cater for the many use cases where sound technology can benefit an organisation, all frequencies of sound need to be used.

In the age of the Internet of Things, the most exciting applications of this technology are the ability to enable low-powered chips and legacy devices to enter into conversation with humans, smart devices, and each other. And it’s already happening around the world. 

Nuclear power stations, for example, are an RF restricted environment so instead use sound technology, ultrasonic sound in this instance, to transmit data securely, broadcast it dynamically and have it received by any device with a microphone. This means that readings can be broadcast directly from equipment to a portable reporting terminal, the location of portable equipment can be tracked and behaviours triggered in individual or a fleet of machines in the case of an emergency. As energy continues to be the primary source of power globally, this technology enables these companies to monitor, diagnose and engage with their power stations in real-time. The technology here has been proven to be resilient to high levels of ambient noise from high pressure water pumps used to cool the reactors, with ambient sound pressure levels of 98dB(A). 

In Hong Kong and China, an app developed for independent coffee shops enables customers to order, pay and gain loyalty points from a number of shops all without the need for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or Near-field communication (NFC). Using sound, simple audible protocols are played through a WAV file from a low-cost POS box that is then recognised by the customer device as a coffee redemption. No screen is required on the merchant’s end. 

And finally, children’s entertainment has some of the most exciting opportunities for this technology. Activision Blizzard’s largest toys-to-life video game Skylanders Imaginators uses audible sound technology to share data, securely and totally offline from the game itself to a companion iOS and Android app. With tens of millions of players worldwide, Skylanders players are able to create and share characters with the companion app which can even be turned into a 3D figure or a trading card. Similarly, Hijinx Toys, a leading interactive toys company, brought its physical Beat Bugs toys to life through sound technology allowing them to sing along with the Emmy-Award winning Netflix TV Series whilst remaining completely offline, meaning they are safe and secure for kids to use and play with without the risk of being hacked from the outside world. This takes “engaging content” to another level and presents a number of exciting opportunities for content producers and brands to tap into new audiences and platforms. 

These examples illustrate how a platform agnostic approach to sound technology can be of benefit. As the world looks to take advantage of the Internet of Things, sound technology can provide connections between smart devices and those without traditional networking capabilities.

Recognising limitations, fostering innovation 

As technology has inadvertently steered people away from human interaction, there’s now an increasing demand for the more human, honest and transparent qualities that ‘hearing the data being transferred’ delivers. There are many good use cases for ultrasound, and equally for audible sound, hence the need for businesses to understand the benefits of each, and have the ability to use both.

While harnessing sound to transmit information between smartphones does indeed enable a number of compelling uses, this is not necessarily where data-over-sound technology is at its most useful. The most compelling uses of data-over-sound technology come from the most unlikely places and a need to solve real world issues. Take Hijinx’s Beat Bugs toys as an example. Hijinx™ chose to partner with Chirp for the launch of their Beat Bug interactive toys to accompany the Netflix TV series, where episodes explore the narrative of songs made famous by the Beatles in a child-friendly fashion. Chirp embedded the toys with a technology that operates on a low cost, low power Arm Cortex M4 chip in order to be mindful of cost ramifications

Over the next decade, situations in which it is neither possible nor desirable to use existing networking technologies due to excessive costs, complex and off-putting set-up processes for the consumer or restrictions on the use of RF based networking technologies, will only increase. Now is the time for organisations to look beyond traditional methods of providing connectivity. Sound can perhaps bring scalable solutions to the table that weren’t there before. 

But as businesses are increasingly spending money on their digital transformation efforts, innovation shouldn’t be for innovation’s sake. Harnessing the unique affordances sound technology can bring to a business when alternatives are lacking is when organisations will truly see game-changing results.

Moran Lerner, Chief Executive Officer, Chirp
Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa