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IT LIFE: James Nesfield, Chirp CTO

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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Audiophile James Nesfield talks us through his career in IT and the work he’s doing at Chirp

What is your role and who do you work for?   

I’m CTO at Chirp – my role is to build the technical team and help foster an environment in which our engineers and scientists can do their absolute best work. I also help set the strategic direction for the company’s technology and make sure that our products and services align with business objectives. 

Chirp produces ‘data over sound’ technology which brings products to life, enables frictionless interactions and allows machines to talk to each other using only sound, i.e. without needing a WiFi, Bluetooth or any other kind of internet connection. Chirp harnesses the unique affordances of sound to transmit data, enabling the interconnection of millions of ‘things’ in a seamless, scalable, cost-effective and powerful way.

This unique technology offers a unique set of problem-solving possibilities across all sectors, including telecommunications, financial services, IoT, entertainment and broadcasting, interactive gaming, toys, robotics, transportation and many others.

We are a small team of specialists. We deliver solutions on a global scale – our technology is in everything from children’s toys to nuclear power stations.

James Nesfield Chirp

How long have you been in IT?

Five or six years now. I spent most of my time after school in academia pursuing a Masters in Sonic Art and then a PhD in Sound and Human/Computer Interaction, which I left after a couple of years to pursue interests in the faster-paced world of startups.

What is your most interesting project to date?

The project we did with Activision was fascinating because of the audience’s emergent behaviour which followed its release. We worked with them to allow children to transfer in-game characters directly from the video game played on a console/ television to a ‘second screen’ tablet or phone – all using our data-over-sound technology.

When the game was released, the children realised that sound was the medium of data transfer, and started uploading screen recordings of the transfer to YouTube and Twitch, so that anyone watch that video (and its audio) could receive the character also.

What is your biggest challenge at the moment?

We are the leader in data-over-sound technology because we invest in core, fundamental R&D which pushes the state of the art forward. This is never straightforward and requires focus and a commitment to pursue the impossible. We constantly challenge ourselves to push forward on a number of scientific and technical fronts. Though these challenges are often ‘self-imposed’, we wouldn’t work in any other way.

Also, one of the core benefits of our technology is its ability to connect devices of all platforms, architectures and form factors. This means we strive to maintain a product portfolio which is both very broad in terms of platform support, but which also work together seamlessly. Balancing a large collection of interoperable products whilst pushing forward and constantly innovating is not simple.

What technology were you working with ten years ago? 

I was doing an undergraduate degree in Acoustics, working on a thesis on lossless audio compression techniques, and spending a year in industry with Genelec a high-end studio monitor (loudspeaker) manufacturer in Finland, helping them with R&D around their power amplifiers and acoustic measurements/analyses.

Technics Record Player

What is your favourite technology of all time?

The record player – sound made tangible and able to be archived in such a beautifully direct way. And the telephone – it’s amazing to me that we have so quickly normalised a device which allows our voice and thoughts to be carried across continents and converse with people anywhere in the world.

How will the Internet of Things affect your organisation?

Our office lights already switch off automatically when people aren’t active and moving around the room enough – part of the benevolent Internet of Things gently encouraging us to be healthier I think.

More generally we see many opportunities for our technology to aid conversations between a vast and quickly growing array of devices. We see Chirp as one of the tools at a product designer’s disposal alongside wired networks, RFID, Bluetooth, WiFi etc – all of these modes of communication will be needed to enable the coming billions of connected devices to easily converse digitally.

Crucially, each of these technologies, including our own, has its own unique set of benefits, strengths and weaknesses. We see Chirp adding its own array of advantages to the portfolio of connectivity solutions available today.

What smartphone do you use?

An iPhone, but could switch anytime. 

What three apps could you not live without?

Besides the Alarm Clock function…. Google Keep, Runkeeper &, of course, our Chirp Demo app.

What new technology are you most excited for a) your business and b) yourself?

Chirp is excited to be playing our part at the dawn of voice-first computing – Amazon’s Alexa & Echo and Apple’s Siri are the most popular early entrants in this growing landscape. We see voice interaction as part of the next major shift towards human-centred interaction with computers; a shift that has been ongoing since the dawn of the computer age. 

We started interacting with computers on their terms (i.e. using punchcards), then moved to complicated but more ‘human’ terminals (i.e. writing text / code). We then moved to a graphical interface and mouse (i.e. Microsoft Windows) and then direct manipulation of items on screen using touch screens (i.e. the iPhone). Now, we are beginning to be able to interact with machines in exactly the same way that we interact with each other – simply by talking.

Chirp’s ability to augment experiences and interaction possibilities in this audio-first space is exciting and we see the advent of voice-enabled devices as an exciting new application area for our technology.

Personally, I keep up to date with trends and technologies news but I consciously distance myself from a lot of the hype. I am interested to see where cryptocurrency goes, and its potential long-term impact on government and society. However, I do not generally aspire to be an early adopter of new technology products and, for example, have no desire to turn my flat into an over-complicated, over-automated new gadget to maintain and debug.

If you weren’t doing the job you do now, what would you be doing?

Working in technology and human interaction on some level, hopefully with a creative, artistic component – I’d love to get some of my sound installations finished and public.

Quiz: What do you know about the Internet of Things?