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Monday, June 12, 2017

Data-over-Sound: An interesting approach to connectivity

I cover three main areas in my research & advisory work:
  • Communications networks & services - mobile network evolution, IoT connectivity, telco business models and policy, and so on
  • Communications applications & technologies - voice, video, messaging, UC etc
  • Communications futurism - the intersection of comms. with other domains such as AI, IoT, blockchain, VR/AR and so forth 
All are evolving at speed, sometimes linked and sometimes in orthogonal - or even opposite - directions. Sometimes the intersections of these various threads yield some surprising combinations and innovations, which are interesting to explore.

I've just written and published a white paper for a client (Chirp.io), on one such intersection - the use of audio signals for short-range communications, or Data-over-Sound. It can be downloaded here (link). The easiest way to think about it is as an alternative to NFC or QR-codes for certain applications - but usable by any device with a microphone/speaker, and with less need for physical proximity or cumbersome pairing like Bluetooth. It's applicable to both normal phones and PCs, and also a variety of IoT devices.

(As always when I write documents like this, I have a stringent set of rules about my editorial independence. Given my normal "spikiness" when I write, in practice it means I need to have broadly-aligned opinions in advance. I've turned down writing papers when I've known the client wouldn't like the views & conclusions in the final report).

The emerging Data-over-Sound sector is currently quite fragmented, and has a mix of new platform players and point-solutions, integrated into customised vertical applications. It's being used for mobile payments in India, device-pairing for UC meeting-room whiteboard applications, and even between robots. Other use-cases exist in retail, advertising/marketing, ticketing and other domains. It can use both audible and inaudible frequency ranges.

In some ways it's similar to technologies like WebRTC, in that it's a capability rather than a product/service in its own right. It still needs some expertise to integrate into an application - and indeed, enough people with "vision" (OK, OK, hearing & inner voice...) to recognise the possible use-cases.  Ideally, it could benefit from more standards, better interoperability, the emergence of extra tools and platforms - and also some ethical standards around things like privacy & security, especially where ultrasound is used covertly.

I don't think Data-over-Sound is going to revolutionise the entire world of connectivity - the same way I'm always skeptical when people claim blockchain is "a new Internet". But I think it should be an important addition to device-to-device communications (I've never viewed NFC positively), and should yield a range of beneficial applications as awareness grows, and applications/tools mature. (And hey, who doesn't like technologies that let your phone speak R2D2 - video link)

The download link, again, is here. The paper gives some background to the technology and use-cases, as well as discussing the emerging structure of the sector.

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