Data over sound and the future of frictionless data transmission

The world of data and connectivity is increasingly complex

As technology advances and the demand for efficient ways of communicating data grows, the world has witnessed a rise in emerging new data transmission technologies which are looking to provide companies with secure and effective ways to share information.

The future of connectivity will be one where an orchestrated combination of technologies working together to fulfil the dream of ubiquitous, frictionless connectivity – regardless of the physical or data-link layers being used.

One solution rising to meet these new demands is data over sound technology. Its ability to enable anyone to send and receive data via sound, using nothing but a device’s existing speaker and microphone has unsurprisingly caught the attention of designers interested in adding additional connectivity functionality to both new and existing devices. What’s more, its ability to remove the pain points of longstanding alternatives Bluetooth and Wifi, making the transmission of data both simple and frictionless, is invaluable.

With companies always looking to innovate and future-proof their services, many are now realising the potential of data over sound to provide seamless device to device connectivity communicate data nearby, using nothing but sound.

One of the main advantages of data over sound is that the physical infrastructure needed to facilitate ultrasonic data transfer is already largely in place. Billions of devices of all form factors already have the required processor and speaker or microphone, from mobile handsets to IoT devices and voice assistants. Data over sound adds new functionality without requiring any physical upgrades to existing hardware or additions to a BOM.

Data over sound makes the onboarding of IoT devices quick and painless. Traditionally, this is a notoriously tricky thing to do – if the device in question doesn’t have a user interface, you first have to follow several steps to turn it into a local hotspot, in order to connect your laptop or smartphone to it and set the credentials.

But using data over sound, this difficult and time consuming process becomes quick and easy: wifi credentials are stored on the phone, and it is simply a case of sending a sound emission to the new device. The interaction goes from 20 frustrating minutes, to a painless 30 seconds pairing of the devices.

Data over sound can also be used in a number of different ways in the financial industry, including the transfer of payments: it can act as the transport layer within a transaction, to seamlessly transfer the payment data from one device to another, just as Google have done with their Tez product in India.

As a payment solution, data over sound is highly accessible, and is already being used by a variety of vendors, from pop-up shops in Shoreditch to street vendors in Delhi. NFC (near-field communication) isn’t a universal feature in consumer devices like phones, Bluetooth is fiddly to make work, and proprietary technologies such as Apple Pay and Android Pay don’t work well in countries with a wide array of different devices. Sound, however, is frictionless, and is the lowest common denominator, needing nothing more complex than a speaker and a microphone – which virtually all devices have. This not only enhances the existing audio functionalities of popular devices, but also removes the need for vendors to invest in additional or entirely new hardware, helping anyone leveraging data over sound to drive down costs for their business.

Similarly to the payments sector, data over sound technology is also revolutionising the area of ticketing. It is proven as a reliable, frictionless and safe means to transmit and authenticate user information for ticketing for a range of uses – consider the impact for transportation services, large scale events, or simply controlling access to spaces. Using data over sound, the ticket authentication process can be fully automated, providing a ticketing solution that accounts for human error and for the wide array of devices that customers carry, and working even in areas without 3G/4G coverage.

Another great use case for data over sound is frictionlessly creating groups based on proximity. If you are in a meeting with a group of people, and want to share some data only with those people in the room, data over sound is an effortless way to make a group and instantly share that information. Alternatively, if you are out for dinner with several people and want to easily split the bill, using data over sound is a speedy and frictionless way to create a group, split the cost, and can even facilitate payment for everyone.

At perhaps the opposite extreme of use cases for this technology is the deployment of data over sound to tackle the challenges of communication in RF Restricted & ATEX environments. Places such as nuclear power, oil rigs and various other relatively dangerous industrial environments do not allow the use of WiFi, Bluetooth, or other radio-based communication standards. Traditionally, environments like this rely on a plethora of wires and cabling or expensive and cumbersome workarounds, which require significant regular downtime for maintenance, and increasingly become health and safety hazards.

Some industrial environments and power stations, however, are adopting data over sound technology to address this issue and send safety critical information. Ultrasonic protocols can cut through the noisy environment created by turbines, generators and machinery, and achieve a sending range of 60 metres – making data transfer simple and frictionless, and allowing engineers to reduce their time spent obtaining readings, station downtime and hazards.

Of course, as is always the case, there is no single solution to data transfer that will be optimal in all environments and for all challenges; there are some instances where other data transfer solutions are better suited to the specific requirements. But, as we have seen, in many situations, data over sound is the ideal solution. And at the end of the day, end users don’t care what medium of data transfer their device uses, as long as it’s simple to implement and works reliably.

Ultimately, we look forward to a future when devices interact seamlessly from the end user’s perspective, regardless of the technology used.

About the Author

James Nesfield is CTO of Chirp. James’ academic focus spans degrees in Acoustics and Sonic Art and doctoral research in Human-Computer Interfaces with Sound, and has since been involved in engineering and strategy at multiple startups. At Chirp he is responsible for managing the technology and development direction. He works with Chirp’s external partners to integrate and promote the use of the technology in their products.