How Data-Over-Sound Will Ensure A Permanently Connected IoT World

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We're growing increasingly used to being connected and online 24/7. The thing is, this isn't actually true, since downtime and internet outages are more common than you might think, with U.K. businesses alone losing three days a year to internet failures, setting them back around £7 billion in total.

In other words, despite living in a “connected world,” we're occasionally offline even when we want to be online, and this has serious implications not only for businesses and consumers, but also for the Internet of Things (IoT). Because if smart devices, buildings and cities lose their Wi-Fi or cellular networks, their ability to transmit useful, actionable information will be severely reduced. On top of this, it isn’t always possible to be connected to a Wi-Fi, cellular or GPS network in certain environments, such as submarines and nuclear power stations.

Fortunately, companies have been emerging in recent years that are honing a new way of transmitting data. By using sound waves, they're enabling devices to connect and talk with each other even when Wi-Fi and Bluetooth aren't available. Their development of data-over-sound protocols has deep implications for the future of IoT, since the ability to communicate via sound may be the vital ingredient needed to ensure round-the-clock connectivity of an ever-expanding roster of smart devices.

Sonarax is one of these companies. In February, it unveiled a new ultrasonic device-to-device communication protocol, which has applications in the contexts of the Internet of Things, smartphone payments, ID and authentication.

Interestingly, this protocol is capable of operating on any device with a built-in speaker or microphone, while it can be used with apps running on operating systems such as iOS, Windows, and Android. As such, it has a very wide range of applicability, something which was highlighted earlier this month when Sonarax announced a partnership with the Group for Education in Museums (GEM), a company that promotes and supports heritage learning in museums and schools throughout the world.

Through this partnership, Sonarax's ultrasonic connectivity protocol will be used as part of GEM's app, helping museum visitors with navigation. By enabling communication between the visitor's smartphone and the museum's own sensors, it can tell that visitor where they are in the museum and also prompt the GEM app to show the visitor info on the artworks in their particular location. And given that none of this requires a Wi-Fi or mobile data connection, it greatly expands the scope for digital communications.

Sonarax boasts that it's the first company in the world to have demonstrated a viable ultrasonic indoor navigation system that can work while a user is moving. However, it isn't the only company producing data-over-sound solutions. Earlier this month, it shared a win at the Worldline ePayments Challenges contest with Stimshop, a Paris-based company that has also developed an ultrasonic communications protocol. Much like Sonarax, Stimshop's protocol can turn any speaker or sound system into a tool for wireless communication, detection, authentication and also geolocation, with the company claiming that it can be used in virtually any circumstance.

Perhaps its most striking use case can be found at EDF's nuclear power station in Gravelines, France. Here, its ultrasonic communications protocol is used for maintenance purposes in areas where radiowaves would be dangerous, travelling distances of up to 100m and capable of being sent and received by standard speakers and microphones.

EDF Energy has also used the services of Chirp in its power stations. Based in London, Chirp is another company whose data-over-sound technology enables wireless communications and authentications, and it most notably signed a deal with Microsoft last August to integrate its technology into the Azure IoT platform. By using Chirp's tech, users of Microsoft's Azure can connect to the IoT platform using only ultrasonic sound waves, which serve to quickly authenticate the user using the equivalent of a sonic QR code.

However, according to Sonarax CEO Benny Saban, data-over-sound is in principle at least as safe as any other communication protocol.

"As in all communication protocols, encrypted data is converted to ultrasonic data and reaches its destination–unchanged–through the same encrypted method by which it was sent," he tells me. "Essentially, the ultrasonic communication protocol adds an additional layer of security to the first layer of encryption. This means that in order to hack the data, one needs to intercept the sonic data, decipher it, and then decipher the encryption used."

Not only that, but Saban explains that Sonarax’s direct over-the-sound verification between two devices prevents so-called man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks, during which hackers manage to interfere with the communication between the two legitimate parties.

So data-over-sound is safe. And while it does have the shortcoming of being slower than other connection standards in terms of download/upload speeds, it is intended largely as a complement to existing connection protocols rather than a replacement, a means of filling in the connection gaps in cases where other protocols aren't usable.

"Sonarax’s data-over-sound technology picks up where Wi-Fi, bluetooth, and other standards leave off," Saban adds. "GPS navigation devices, for example, require a direct line of sight with satellites in order to function properly, and therefore do not fully work in indoor or underground environments. Sonarax’s technology harnesses soundwaves’ natural ability to be confined within a physical space to allow for indoor and underground navigation, as well as personalized and secure IoT experiences."

It's for such reasons that we can expect to see data-over-sound becoming more common in the near and more distant future. And with it, we'll move closer to a world in which we truly are connected all the time, for better and (sometimes) for worse

Sonarax and Stimshop Win Worldline e-Payments Challenge



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