A new smartphone app called Chirp allows short-range data exchange using digital 'birdsong'. Sounds like fun, but there's a very serious side to chirping, says inventor Patrick Bergel.
I'm sitting in a loud pub in south London. Bruce Springsteen is blaring out on the jukebox, crowds of men are shouting at footballers on plasma screens, and an energetic argument has broken out over a game of pool. This must be the perfect place to test a new sonic data transfer protocol.
Sitting opposite me is Chirp co-creator Patrick Bergel, who touches a large yellow button on his iPhone. His phone emits a rapid, warbling series of bleeps, sounding something like a robot bird, or a friendly fax machine. Almost instantly, a photo selected from his phone appears on my phone. Bergel has just 'chirped' me.
Even against the ambient aural soup of our location, this short, quiet audio pulse is all that is required to transmit the data. As with the birdsong that inspired Chirp, you have to be within audible range for data to be transferred. And like birdsong, Chirp is pretty good at cutting through noise.
Bergel is the CEO of Animal Systems, the company behind Chirp, a new spinout of UCL Department of Computer Science. As a creative technologist with an arts background and a mild obsession with sound, modern gadgetry and obsolete communication tools, Bergel doesn't look like a typical Internet geek. If anything, Bergel is more of an old-school, perhaps slightly eccentric, British entrepreneur who happens to think like a West Coast software developer. As he wraps up his demonstration, he tells me that since the app was launched a month ago the market take-up has been swift. He is already six months ahead of his business plan for downloads of the product, the potential of which is starting to surprise even its inventor.
Hatching an audio app
Put at its simplest, Chirp is a short-range data communication platform for sharing information. Chirp links any device that has a conventional loudspeaker and any device capable of receiving and decoding that information, in the first case, an iPhone. "Critically, we don't encode very much data in the audio," explains Bergel. "We just encode a link to the data, which we store online. If you're going to use sound to send information, this has quite a few advantages."
Bergel happily admits that Chirp is not a high-speed data transfer medium. "We move 50 bits over the air in two seconds. You won't find a slower communications system released this century! But where we believe we more than make up for that is in the ubiquity of sound.
"There are without exaggeration, billions of devices equipped to store, carry or reproduce sound in the human audio passband. We can therefore potentially use all of these devices to carry small data: a link to a photo, a contact number, say. Put this together with what we hope is a sweet and birdlike sound that tells humans something is happening, and you have Chirp."
The idea of exchanging data with sound is certainly fun. You can imagine 'chirping' your business card to friends in the pub. There is no longer the need to find pen and paper, or peck at your virtual keyboard to select names to send to - anyone in audible range can hear the chirp and decode it.
What happens between realising that there is the potential to develop a data transfer app based on short audio pulses and getting the funky little yellow bird onto a smartphone is, according to Bergel, "some years of hard work, and many primitive, malfunctioning demos.
"Anthony Steed of UCL's Department of Computer Science and I had previously been involved in a start-up working on search for mobile devices, so we both knew what we were in for. And we had enjoyed working together despite that business not succeeding. So, 10 years later, we joined forces again to work on Chirp.
"It quickly became apparent that Chirp was an exciting concept, and not just to us as developers. We had very early commercial validation and feedback that people could and would use it - if we could build it."
Chirp is very much a product of modern'entrepreneurial London in partnership with academia. UCL Business provided seed-funding to develop and patent the prototype version and effectively 'incubated' the team, while Imperial Innovations, the technology transfer fund attached to Imperial College, is now also an investor.
Bergel notes that London is increasingly becoming a centre of software startup excellence, with an eco-system building up around 'Silicon Roundabout' in east London. "The strength of this community," says Bergel, "is that while there is a considerable amount of software talent in London, it's not just technologists. There are creative, legal, design, financial and business development resources: everything one needs to build a start-up. When you start out you need more than a good idea - you need a supportive environment. Ten years ago, the resources that are available to us now just weren't there."
Bergel describes his company as being modern in that it is "well-distributed", a genteelism for being an organisation that doesn't have an office. A decade ago, if you didn't have office space you weren't perceived as a company. But today it's different. Bergel explains that central to the organisation is lab space at UCL, "but we generally work remotely, and our DSP guy is based in Barcelona. We often work with another team based in Brighton and the rest of us are scattered around London".
The art of engineering
"I'm a creative technologist," says Bergel. "I develop new technology for regular people, for people who aren't interested in technology for its own sake. My job is to make friendly, humane interfaces for consumers, and in so doing, create new platforms for developers and business customers."
One of the management skills central to achieving this is to be able to call on the abilities and strengths of a diverse portfolio of experts. CTO and Animal Systems co-founder Anthony Steed's name comes up again: "As well as being a friend and sparring partner, Anthony is a hugely talented and well-regarded computer scientist who can pick up almost any technology and build something wonderful with it, in short order. He also has a long-term interest in pervasive or ubiquitous computing from a technical perspective, whereas I come at it from a user perspective."
Specialist skills were needed to work on the Chirp audio engine, to balance both the requirements of over-the-air data and user demands. "If we had used ugly, but efficient audio encoding - closer to the approach of an acoustic modem, say - users would have rejected Chirp immediately. So the DSP element has to be both functional to overcome environmental noise and network compression, while remaining user-driven. That is: short and sweet. DSP is frankly a bit of a dark art, especially when applied to mobile devices. We're also very lucky to work with some talented specialists in that field."
With the signal processing worked out, the software written and the interface design in place, all that's left is to publish the app. "That's a fairly mechanical part of the story. You do a lot of testing to make sure that the interface works and that it's something people will find easy to use. Apple takes care of the distribution via their app store. But what Apple doesn't do is get involved with the marketing or the branding of the product." In a previous incarnation, Bergel worked as a creative director in advertising and marketing, which meant that he was able to apply this experience to making the last piece of the puzzle: the brand.
Follow the money
It doesn't matter how positive the end-user response is to a free app if there is no way of turning the product into money, and to do that Bergel says that Chirp needs to be attractive to business.
"There are many ways in which you could monetise Chirp, and we have only really started to scratch the surface. We see a future where Chirp can be preinstalled on devices and where we open it up to third-party developers to create transaction-based applications for the product. While Chirp is fun, Chirp also enables others to create value."
Bergel explains the 'user-journey' of Alice, who sees something on the Web that grabs her attention. A banner ad can chirp a special offer to her smartphone. She then takes her digital voucher to the point of sale, and redeems it. "Marketing and retail people are already showing strong interest in Chirp for just this type of use-case."
Bergel also sees longer-term potential in peer-to-peer payments allowing money to change hands over the Cloud. I put to Bergel the abstract proposition that here we are in the pub, and I've run out of cash. Are we in a situation where, rather than lend me a '20 note, he could effectively swap me one in a transaction where he hands over the actual money to me and I simply Chirp him what I owe from my bank account. "Exactly. But, there's no reason why one day you can't pay for the next round with a chirp."