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Up close and personal: Enabling better connected experiences with data-over-sound

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Ekaphon maneechot)

In the shift towards ubiquitous connectivity between devices and humans, the Internet of Things has taken off in both enterprise and domestic settings. Today, smart platforms and devices which automate previously menial tasks, such as joining a Wi-Fi network or authenticating when starting a conference call, are dominating. And, with the number of IoT devices set to reach 20 billion globally by 2020, they look well poised to continue their rise in the years ahead.

However, as the number of connected devices around us expands, so does the need to be able to instantly connect to other devices in close proximity - something which will continue to rise as people increasingly seek quick and seamless interactions. The ‘always-on’ world we live in has made individuals more expectant of receiving an instant service from businesses, and the connectivity required to facilitate this is becoming ever more critical. Companies are therefore now tasked with finding the best technology for making these experiences more frictionless. But this does not come without its challenges.

The challenge of nearby connectivity

Synchronising two devices in close proximity should be a trivial and effortless interaction. Yet, due to various factors at play, pairing two devices typically presents a number of challenges.

Bluetooth’s pairing process is slow and fiddly, and using it to connect two devices can be error-prone. Bluetooth LE (BLE) overcomes some of the pairing pain, but suffers from incompatibility challenges between different devices types. Connecting nearby devices via Wi-Fi requires the user to take a number of manual steps before a connection can be made: typically, entering the network password, and the IP address or pairing ID of nearby device

Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and all other radio-based technologies suffer from increasing congestion within the RF bands, which results in interference as large number of devices fight for signal. This often increases the length of time taken to join a network and can be a frustrating experience for the user.

Security is also a key factor when connecting neighbouring devices, and the risk of breaches is still a major concern for businesses and consumers alike. Unfortunately, despite their use in many homes and workplaces, the security of IoT devices often takes a backseat, with functionality as top priority. Connecting devices through a shared Wi-Fi network can also, for example, leave user information susceptible to higher risk of security issues (opens in new tab) simply to due to the volume of people able to join it.

The value of data-over-sound

As the demand for better connected experiences grows, many businesses are now experimenting with alternative forms of connectivity to facilitate effective communication between devices in a range of situations.

One solution making ground across the space is data-over-sound technology, which provides users with the unique ability to find and connect all devices in a room, even if they have no previous connection. It does so by transmitting data into a sequence of sounds - typically using the inaudible near-ultrasonic frequency range - that can then be decoded by another device. One of the main benefits of data-over-sound is that the infrastructure needed to operate in this way is already largely in place. It needs nothing more than the microphone and speaker already found in most modern devices to form audio-based connections.

This grants substantial ease-of-use advantages when compared to the likes of NFC by reducing the amount of additional hardware to be added to the company’s bill of materials. What’s more, the technology’s use of audio makes it both versatile and well suited to a range of close proximity environments and use cases, which other forms of connectivity find challenging.

By improving the process of both sending and receiving data between nearby devices, day-to-day tasks such as finding other people playing the same game nearby or even splitting a bill can be made easier for everyone involved. This can be achieved by removing much of the friction often associated with modern-day alternatives such as passing round a scannable QR code, or manually sharing a code which several individuals must enter via the keyboard.

Enhancing real-life experiences with sound

Mobile gaming: Data-over-sound is making increasing headway in the multiplayer mobile gaming world as a way to enhance the shared user experience. Creating gaming sessions with nearby players has traditionally been tricky, requiring users to manually enter the IDs of gamers that they want to play with. Data-over-sound can be used to streamline this process, using short bursts of audio to identify nearby users and automatically create a gaming session. It's for this reason that Roblox, the world's largest social network for play, has recently rolled out a data-over-sound based solution for proximity friend finding.

By working completely offline, without recording or saving any information, The solution can  provide an extra layer of security and privacy to young gamers, given that only players geographically close by will be able to find each other. Regulation and information security will be a key issue in 2019, and data-over-sound provides a method of pairing nearby devices which is intrinsically compliant with information-sharing regulations such as GDPR and COPPA.

Provisioning: Data-over-sound is now also being used to seamlessly provision IoT devices. Traditionally users are required to turn the device into a WIFI hotspot which can be a lengthy and complex procedure and the likes of Microsoft are now looking to the potential of data-over-sound to  provision IoT devices. Credentials are transported into a sound which is then transmitted to a speaker in a phone or laptop. The data is received over audio and connected to a network, with data-over-sound being recognised as a simple and intuitive solution to these long-standing issues.

Bill-splitting: The simple task of splitting a bill can sometimes be a pain, with modern processes often requiring the user to either send the same code or QR code to each participant in order to connect all devices in a party. Data-over-sound provides a frictionless solution, enabling you to connect a number of devices easily and securely. In addition, data-over-sound can be used to power payments for pop up shops, allowing customers to make a payment with one simple click.

Ticketing: Data-over-sound is increasingly being used for ticketing in a range of different scenarios, including transportation services and large-scale concert events. Transport services such as Shuttl are adopting this method in order to produce a fast and effortless boarding and ticket authentication system for both passenger and driver. Integrating this technology allows ticket data to be communicated quickly and securely, without any requirement for cellular connectivity, reducing  onboarding time and resulting in substantial efficiency savings.

Guided tours: Because data-over-sound can give precise proximity location to a user's mobile app, even indoors, museums have begun discovering the benefits of data-over-sound technology to accommodate their customers on tours. It allows museums to deliver a tailored and location-aware approach to storytelling, creating a more personal feel to the visitor experience.

Despite IoT and connected devices advancing rapidly across the industrial and consumer landscape, the challenges of using traditional technologies to provision at scale are clear to see. Data-over-sound is now offering companies huge potential to deliver seamless and frictionless experiences for their customers and given its versatile nature, we are likely to see the technology accelerate its position as an integral asset for enjoyable digital experiences in years to come.

Daniel Jones, CTO, Chirp (opens in new tab)
Image source: Shutterstock/Ekaphon maneechot

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.