Start-Up Uses Sound For NFC On iPhone And Android

Narrate’s Zoosh ultrasonics software enables NFC via a device’s speakers and microphones

While Google prepares to get its Google Wallet mobile payment service based on traditional near field communications technology into New York and San Francisco markets this summer, a startup is taking a different tack with NFC: ultrasonics.

NFC is a wireless technology that enables short-range communications between devices, such as smartphones and a point-of-sale (POS) terminal, equipped with special sensors. Google, the ISIS carrier mobile payment initiative, and many others are using NFC in this fashion.

Speakers and microphones

Narrate’s Zoosh software leverages smartphones’ speakers and microphones to enable the same data communications between devices that today’s NFC provides, but with ultrasonics frequencies that are inaudible to humans.

Narrate co-founder and chief development officer Byron Alsberg said Zoosh uses the phone speaker as a data transmitter to transmit inaudible data over the air to a device’s microphone as the data receiver. Zoosh transmission are encrypted with a unique electronic key.

It’s ostensibly a software-based acoustic baseband, with proprietary algorithms rolled up in software to power applications. “If a device has MP3 playback capability, it can Zoosh,” Alsberg told eWEEK.

In nature, ultrasonics are used by frogs, dolphins and other animals to communicate; with Zoosh, they are being used to enable secure communications in Apple’s iPhones, Google Android phones, iPads and Android tablets, as well as computers, TVs and feature phones.

This is a potentially big deal because today’s NFC-enabled smartphones require special NFC chips. Zoosh effectively cuts out that chip as middleman.

Google for example provides NFC capabilities in its Android 2.3 “Gingerbread” operating system. However, Gingerbread smartphones such as the Samsung Nexus S 4G leverage Secure Element chip to enable NFC and store credit card information for the Google Wallet service.

Many Android phones will be upgraded to Gingerbread this year, but most won’t be able to enjoy the benefits of NFC because they lack those chips. Zoosh will in fact enable these communications, cutting out that chip and even the network connection as middlemen, Narrate chief executive and Co-founder Brett Paulson told eWEEK.

Mobile transactions

“When we look at the current technologies out there, they have fallen short in trying to provide this device-to-device technology,” Paulson said.

Indeed, Google and its carrier partners could well license (or buy) Zoosh to enable mobile transactions for Gingerbread smartphones lacking NFC chips.

Paulson said he, Alsberg and their team are selling Zoosh in a software development kit developers can plug into their existing applications.

This kit is sold directly to wireless carriers, which may provision it to thousands of devices over the air. At the retail level, most POS systems already have audio systems in them, so retailers could install Zoosh and plug in a £20 dock that conducts NFC transactions.

Loyalty card provider SparkBase will use Zoosh to store and manage loyalty cards via smartphones in July. Other use cases for Zoosh include purchasing train tickets, goods from vending machines, virtual currencies and checking in at the local gym. Bluetooth headset pairing is in the works as well.

Narrate, which banked $5 million (£3m) in funding from unnamed investors, is based in Sunnyvale, California and has 12 employees. The company currently has eight patents pending.