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Beacodes Are Like QR Codes Based on Inaudible High-Frequency Sound

A new-old networking idea returns.

by Michael Byrne
Feb 28 2016, 2:30pm

Image: Alexandru Nika/Shutterstock

The thing with QR codes is that they're just kind of a pain in the ass. The task of capturing and translating a QR code with a smartphone camera via some app and then being navigated to some web page is not in the general case enormously faster or simpler than just looking at a URL and tapping it into a phone with one's own fingers. By many if not most accounts, the QR code is a technology that's been in steady decline over the past five or six years. That's not big news.

The basic idea, however, is solid: If we're walking around with these networked devices in our pockets, it seems reasonable that we should be able to engage with localized ad hoc networks in meaningful ways that are also not a pain in the ass. If we're entering the environment of some store or restaurant, maybe that environment should extend to the devices that we spend most of our days looped into.

Part of QR code obsolescence is the advance of NFC (near field communications) technology, wherein a device or chip can communicate wirelessly with another nearby device, e.g. in new-school swipeless credit card systems. But maybe lower-tech approaches to the problem still have a place (lower-tech in the sense of being communicated by things other than radio waves). Some folks are trying, at least.

Enter Beacodes, a newly unveiled short-range communications scheme that depends only on plain old speakers and plain old microphones. In the words of its creators:

Beacodes are like QR codes. Both can contain short messages that can be read by your mobile device. Unlike QR codes which are transmitted visually, Beacodes are sent using specially crafted sound that is inaudible to human ears, yet fully "audible" to mobile device microphones.

Each Beacode allows for the transmission of up to 63 bytes of data per message, which is about enough for a URL or quick text message:

In some cases they can replace BLE beacons, but unlike radio transmitters, our acoustic signals offer some special capabilities. For instance they can be embedded within an audio or video file. This includes sending messages embedded into ambient music or even broadcasting them through TV cable or satellite networks. Imagine sending coupons through your advertisement movie on a TV.

The Beacodes website is pretty short on details at the moment, but it promises software-development kits for the usual mobile platforms at some unspecified date. (I emailed Beacodes and will update when I hear back.) The site does offer a demo, however, which can be accessed via the Beacodes Android (and so far only Android) app.

Image: Beacodes

It works pretty well, based on a handful of messages sent via my laptop speakers from the Beacodes demo page to my smart-phone microphone. The process is smooth and simple, based on an app that does basically nothing besides display message text and delete-all messages. It's more a proof of concept.

That said, the concept was proven already several years ago via a technology known as Zoosh, which offers essentially the same idea but with a focus on credit card payments. Zoosh was a startup concept in 2011, but nowadays is a Verifone product in active deployment as part of the credit card processor's Way2Ride mobile payments service.

In comparison, the Beacodes pitch would seem to be an open platform for developers to come up with new and better uses for the technology. Whether either company can withstand increasingly ubiquitous NFC technology remains to be seen.

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