Every so often for as long as I can recall, I enjoy doing some research about Steganography and of particular interest is hidden data transmission via sound. I’ve always been intrigued by these technologies and the use cases that they enable. Though obviously not originally intended for mobile marketing, advertising and consumer applications, we are starting to see experiments that apply these advanced techniques in these areas.
Much like QR Codes, Sound Codes can be used to assist a mobile user interacting with some form of marketing collateral. Unlike QR Codes, these Audio Watermarks can be used on all mediums, not just visual ones. They can be embedded with print, video and audio advertisements whereas QR Codes are used with print and screen-based visual mediums. The two formats can be used together and one does not obsolete the other but Sound Codes are just… cooler. In this post I will attempt to explain why I like this tech and how it is used in the context of consumerism.
What are Sound Codes?
Sound Codes, sometimes referred to as audio watermarks or audio tags, are audio signals of various formats and sometimes intentionally imperceptible to the human ear (ultra-high frequencies). When coupled with advanced sound wave decoding algorithms they are used to transmit small amounts of data that are typically identifiers associated with additional data and content that is most likely stored on the Internet downloaded to users devices. As it relates to mobile marketing or even mobile payments, Sound Codes are the audio equivalent of QR Codes, Bluetooth and NFC. Audio watermarks can actually be more efficient and cost-effective in the long-term because of it’s different and arguably simpler attributes. Microphones and speakers are on every device and that’s important. Leveraging these common electronic components to achieve new forms of communication with the help of some intermediary software is a great example of re-purposing simple technology to create advanced technology. Sound Codes are just another applicable technology that relates to mobile marketing so it’s worth exploring if you like to be ahead of the curve.
Cool vs Clunky
The most fundamental difference in efficiency and ease of use between the two is automation and accuracy. Yes, a mobile device currently would still need to have a special app installed to tap into this technology but once running, the user could literally just stand-by and watch their screen as audio triggered content appears based on where they are, what they are looking at or even what they are listening to and watching on TV. Let’s go over some examples.
I could be walking down a busy street with lots of retail windows or an aisle in a grocery store or even enjoying a stroll through a museum and as long as I decided to enable the app to “listen” I could have a digitally enhanced context-aware experience. A store window could zap over a photo or video with a coupon offer that entices me to enter the store and do some shopping. A food product on the shelf of a grocery store could send me an ingredient list and nutritional data sheet along with price savings details. And my museum experience can be more informative and entertaining as extra supplementary content is sent to me automatically as I appreciate the art and artifacts on display. These examples would use very small hidden sound beacons that emit the audio signals to any enabled device that is nearby. These beacons can be tiny and embedded onto the back of labels or posters. Larger beacons are still small enough to strategically hide. If a beacon is not used, it is common to use the speaker system used in a store or venue and the Audio Watermarks are intermixed with normal audio content (music, radio ads etc).
Automation and Accuracy is Key to the Experience.
You see, other methods such as scanning QR Codes, SMS texting to a Short Code, going to a website or even searching for branded #hashtags… these are all clunkier experiences when compared to invisible and/or inaudible sound triggers. Our cameras ability to focus, scan and decode together with the necessary user interaction such as typing, tapping and scrolling results in a slower and more cumbersome interaction when compared to Sound Codes which from what I have seen…. just work with minimal user involvement in order to get from action to reward. This is how users want it to work. The Lean back experience is a positive one.
It goes without saying that advanced technology solutions requires more mobile marketing investment. So Audio Watermarking may not be suitable for all businesses and marketers especially as the adoption rate is so low at this time. But I can see this becoming another norm in the future of advertising. It’ll take time just as other formats have had slow adoption rates. After all, the mobile and second screen content market is still in its infancy.
What About Noise Interference?
acoustically-coupled modems in the 60s and 70s used sound waves as the intermediary between the telephone company’s line and the computer itself.
This has been the most important aspect of the algorithms that have been developed over the years. I won’t go into detail on all the various approaches to solving this issue but suffice it to say that it’s not a big concern. The software used with sound-based data handling has matured and evolved to the point where we will start to see this technology used more often in the real world by marketers, retailers, broadcasters and at live events. Like most similar technologies, a rather close proximity is preferred to get desired results but in the case of using a loud PA and speaker system, an entire large crowd can receive and decode the audio signal successfully and essentially automatically download whatever content was associated with that Sound Code! So Sound Codes are…..
That’s right, listening to the radio or your favorite podcast? Watching TV with your second screen handy? At a concert with your phone raised in the air ready to catch a digital exclusive? In all of these cases and mediums, content can quickly and effortlessly be sent to all of the devices in the crowd within seconds. The power and simplicity of this can be a game-changer. the one-to-many transmission is really exciting and their are some proofs of concept over the past year or so out in the wild that are worth looking into.
Sound is Ubiquitous
Their seems to be a limitless supply of use cases but will it become mainstream and common in the mobile marketing or mobile payments space? I think it’s inevitable that sound-based content triggers will emerge as a goto technology to connect objects with experiences and that can permeate into multiple markets. After all, the software side of it is figured out and the hardware side is standard and inexpensive relatively speaking. It is a simpler more efficient and flexible system as opposed to Bluetooth, NFC and QR Codes (proximity limitations etc). Sound is ubiquitous and so to will be the Sound Code in a world where the Internet of Things and ubiquitous computing is more pervasive than the Internet we know and use today.
Chirp is an app that demonstrates Sound Codes. Here is an intro video:
Check out this experiment using Prezi and Chirp together to demonstrate Audio Watermarks embedded in a Presentation:
A different approach to Audio Watermarks using physical notched identification tags: