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Why Some Are Turning to Sound for Mobile Payments and More

Startups are using sound waves to let mobile gadgets transfer data quickly and efficiently.
August 20, 2013

Next time you take a taxi in New York City, there may be a new way to pay your fare. Instead of handing over cash, swiping a credit card, or—if you’re one of the few with a capable smartphone—tapping your handset on a near-field communication (NFC) reader, you could be able to settle up by pressing a button on a smartphone app that communicates using sound.

For the birds: Chirp, an iPhone app, allows users to send links to each other using audible sound waves.

The new app, called Way2ride, is free for iPhone and Android from the payment service company VeriFone, which already provides payment processing systems for more than half of the city’s 13,000 yellow cabs. VeriFone recently acquired the underlying technology, called Zoosh, from a startup called Naratte (see “Ultrasound App Lets Almost Any Phone Pay”).

VeriFone is one of a number of companies using sound waves to transfer small amounts of data over short distances, which could make it easier to transfer money electronically, among other things. A well-funded stealth startup called Clinkle is said to be doing something similar (a spokeswoman for Clinkle had no comment for this article).

VeriFone’s Way2ride app allows your phone to pick up an inaudible sound signal containing a unique code broadcast by a speaker in each taxi. The app sends this code to Way2ride servers, where it is matched with your cab, and your preset payment preferences are then sent to the cab over a cellular network and displayed on a backseat console. If you haven’t selected the auto-pay option, you can choose which card in your virtual Way2ride wallet to pay with and set a tip.

Zoosh could make its way into other payment terminals in the near future. “Anywhere we have a speaker and an entertainment system, like a gas station or in a taxi, it can work with that technology,” says Jason Gross, vice president of strategy and marketing for VeriFone Media, which is a unit of VeriFone.

The general premise isn’t new at all: it’s analogous to the tones traditional telephones emit when a call is placed over analog lines. Years later, we have much faster (and quieter) Internet connections, as well as short-distance communication systems like NFC and Bluetooth. However, some companies believe sound-wave data transfer is a good alternative because two of the prerequisites—a speaker and a receiver—are already so widespread, and the technology doesn’t require any special hardware or device pairing. That could make it easier for consumers around the world, including the millions who do not have smartphones, to do things like buy and sell goods locally. Sound can also be used as a simple way to let completely different devices communicate, which is becoming increasingly important as we split time between an ever-growing number of gadgets.

Another startup, Animal Systems, offers an app called Chirp that uses sound to let users share photos, links, and notes with friends; it could also be used to retrieve coupons in a store. While the method works only over short distances and can’t reliably move much data at a time—Animal Systems CEO Patrick Bergel says his startup aims for 97 percent success at ranges of three to four feet—the use of sound waves may at least serve as a useful intermediate technology. “It seemed like there was a sort of secret network waiting to be used,” Bergel says of the rise of sound as a data-transfer method. He says Animal Systems may also open up its technology to outside developers.

Sonic Notify (see “Startup Sends More than Music through Speakers”) has a technology called Adomaly that plays high-frequency sound waves through speakers or small dedicated beacons, which send a trigger to your phone. If your handset already has an appropriate app and you’ve opted to receive location-specific messages, the trigger prompts the phone to take an action. This could mean connecting to a server and grabbing a coupon for a product in front of you when you’re in a store, or accepting an invitation to a special event while you’re watching TV. Sonic Notify can also use low-power Bluetooth to communicate with users even if they haven’t paired their devices, but this version of Bluetooth is still not very widespread. Unless you’re using sound, “to get a large volume of people now and not three years from now, you really don’t have any other option,” says Sonic Notify’s CEO, Aaron Mittman.

Others are already developing tools to make it easier to communicate with sound. Boris Smus, a Google engineer, recently released an ultrasonic networking JavaScript library called Sonicnet.js, which uses the Web audio API to allow users to transmit and receive data via sound waves. So far, a handful of people are trying it out, he says, and though he’s not yet sure what results this will yield, he does feel it’s important. “The problem of multiple devices together in our close personal area network is a big problem to solve,” he says.

Yankee Group analyst Carl Howe says there’s “huge potential” for such technology because phones of all kinds are already primed to use it, which is not the case with NFC. However, he thinks it will have to be easy to use—perhaps a system enabled by something similar to the dedicated low-power processor on the new Motorola X smartphone, which is always on and listening for specific voice commands (see “Motorola Reveals First Google-Era Phone, the Moto X”). “There are pluses and minuses—audio clearly is going to be a tougher technology to use on a crowded conference floor than an electronic radio technology,” he says. “But it really depends on the environment and the application.”

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