For years, banks, cell-phone carriers, and tech companies have been experimenting with technology that enables mobile phones to connect securely over short distances and make payments in stores. Although Google and other big companies say they’re committed to the radio-based technology known as near-field communications (NFC), few phones have the necessary hardware built in.
Now startup Naratte, based in Sunnyvale, California, claims it can deliver the same experience on almost any existing phone, establishing a secure link by generating a sound too high-pitched for the human ear. “All you need is a speaker and microphone, which you already have on your device,” says Brett Paulson, Naratte’s chief executive and cofounder. “We’ve built everything in software so you just download an app to get a contactless experience.”
Using the technology, known as Zoosh, involves briefly holding a phone within six inches of either another handset with a Zoosh-enabled app or a dedicated reader connected to a store’s checkout terminal. The devices exchange short ID tokens encoded into blips of ultrasound to identify each other, a process that takes less than one second. Then users can make debit or credit transactions of points or even cash, or let devices swap data such as contact info.
Naratte has spent two years developing the audio-processing technology needed to make the approach secure enough for payments data and robust enough to work even in noisy environments, says Byron Alsberg, the company’s other cofounder and chief development officer. “Only in the last couple of years has it become possible to do the audio processing needed on a phone without adding a specialized chip,” he says. As phones have begun to double as media players and interest in speech recognition has grown, playback and microphone quality have improved.
Even simple phones that can’t runs apps can use the technology. Text messages with embedded audio files can allow these phones to use the system. “The criterion is: does it have MP3 playback?” says Alsberg. “That’s a lot of devices.”