Chirp: Why transmitting data as sound waves could transform IoT networking |...
chirp - sending data with sound

Chirp: Why transmitting data as sound waves could transform IoT networking | Exclusive CTO Q&A

Forget about tweeting: some IoT companies could benefit from chirping instead. Malek Murison catches up with an intriguing startup, Chirp, and finds out why sound could be the safest and most efficient data-transfer medium in some situations.

James Nesfield is CTO of data-over-sound startup, Chirp. He believes that transmitting data using sound waves, at both audible and ultrasonic frequencies, offers a huge range of hidden benefits, and can – counter-intuitively – enable more secure transactions.

Chirp’s technology takes data and encodes it into a unique audio stream, before sending it from one device to another. Anything with a speaker can send a ‘chirp’, while most devices that have a microphone can receive and decode the message.

The company recently offered a free tier of its software development kit (SDK) to enterprise developers. So what’s the thinking behind the company and its unusual technology?

Why is sound an ideal medium for data transfer?

Rather than being a data-transmission solution for every scenario, Nesfield suggests that transferring data over sound is the most efficient method in certain situations.

Compared to WiFi, data over sound has a slower transmission rate. “However,” he says, “the onboarding process for a solution like Chirp is extremely fast and simple, compared to the lengthy process of setting up a WiFi network.”

The same goes for Bluetooth, “which can involve an even more time-consuming connection process of having to pair with another device within a certain proximity,” he says.

“With Chirp, data transfer can be conducted instantaneously and without any previous pairing or configuration, making it much more efficient in terms of time and convenience for the user.”

And then there’s the issue of range. One limitation for many popular forms of data networking is the need for the transmitter and receiver to be in close proximity for the connection and transfer to work. NFC tags and QR codes are prime examples.

“Data over sound provides an alternative that enables seamless data transfer from devices that are in the same area, but not necessarily as close as NFC or most sizes of QR code,” he explains.

“Audio data transfer is ‘one to one to many’ and so allows communication between multiple devices quickly – a particular advantage for those implementing Chirp across many pieces of equipment.”

And in terms of security, this extended but still limited range comes with other benefits. “Unlike those technologies, our solution is also confined to room boundaries, which increases security by ensuring that data simply can’t travel outside of the perimeter.”

The final advantage relates to the work that companies typically have to put in to install new networks and connectivity. “It’s important to point out that the physical infrastructure needed to facilitate ultrasonic data transfer is already largely in place,” Nesfield says.

“Billions of devices of all form factors already have the requisite processors, speakers, or microphones – such as mobile handsets, IoT devices, and voice assistants. Chirp adds new functionality without requiring any physical upgrades to existing hardware.”

Chirp announces free SDK availability

Last month, Chirp announced the availability of a free tier of its software development kit (SDK), giving commercial and hobbyist users experimental access to the company’s technology.

The SDK tier is complete with all of the protocols needed to start setting up audio data transfers, full compatibility with standard developer platforms, and the option to use the solution offline. The Chirp SDK can be used within any commercial project that has up to 10,000 monthly active users.

The reasoning behind the giveaway is simple: Chirp hopes that it will provide developers with an opportunity to explore the untapped potential of data over sound. “Our mission is to proliferate data over sound technology and ensure that wherever value can be added by sending data using audio, Chirp is there,” says Nesfield.

“By offering a free tier of our SDK, we can increase the likelihood of having more conversations with developers, who have already been able to download and integrate the technology and solve particular problems. This not only creates a host of exciting new use cases for our own technology, but also helps to establish us as a mainstream connectivity provider.”

Data over sound applications

When we first covered Chirp back in March 2017, the company claimed its technology was in demand in sectors ranging from toys and interactive gaming through to consumer goods brands, VR/AR, industrial robotics, IoT, manufacturing, transportation, and ticketing.

At the time Chirp name-dropped several clients, including gaming brand Activision Blizzard, Indian bus aggregation platform Shuttl, and a nuclear facility belonging to UK power supplier, EDF Energy.

In February 2018, Chirp and EDF announced that the energy provider’s Heysham 1 nuclear power station in Lancashire, England, had been awarded £100,000 by public-sector tech investment agency, Innovate UK. The grant funded the application of Chirp’s technology to provide audio data transfers and connectivity in radio-frequency restricted environments.

“WiFi and mobile communications are common in most workplaces, but not on our stations,” explained Dave Stanley, a project manager in EDF Energy’s Innovation Delivery Team at the time. “So having a way of getting regular and reliable data from remote instruments in radio-restricted areas will be useful for our engineers.”

ISBAN, the technology and operations division of bank Santander, has also trialled Chirp’s technology.

The potential to weave data over sound applications into such a wide range of operations suggests that versatility is the real cornerstone of Chirp’s strategy. “When it comes to applications of the SDK, we really don’t want to anticipate the boundaries or possibilities of our technology,” confirms Nesfield.

“For us, it’s about having faith in both the curiosity and creativity of the developer community to explore different uses of our technology and find new ways to effectively implement data over sound, whether this be on the smallest or the largest scale.”

Internet of Business says

As with any mode of connectivity, there are questions over how an audible data stream could stand up to security intrusions, especially as the technology requires little in the way of specialist kit.

Nesfield explains that Chirp’s technology should be seen as a transport layer – a data vehicle. It’s been developed with encryption in mind, but it’s up to users to “bulletproof the glass”, he says.

“Chirp exists solely as the transport layer and it’s our responsibility to ensure that data is successfully transmitted from point A to point B. While we don’t claim to be leaders in cryptography, our technology has been built with encryption in mind and it therefore has various features which can help support secure transactions,” he says.

“Acting as a device-agnostic transport layer for data means that any third party can not only build this layer easily into their own architecture for a range of use cases, but also integrate their own security layer on top.

“This ultimately gives anybody implementing the technology full visibility and control over their own encryption by allowing them to bring their own best practices, without anyone outside of their network – including Chirp – having access.”