We’ve come to a world where swapping links with someone on the other side of the world is just as easy as swapping links with someone next to you. But… shouldn’t swapping links with someone next to you just a little bit faster? Google thinks so. Behold Tone, an extension for Chrome that lets nearby computers swap links via unique audio tones. One computer emits the sound, and the other computer picks it up via microphone and translates it into a URL.
If you want to try it out, download Tone here and, when you want to broadcast a URL, hit the blue Tone button in your Chrome toolbar. Other computers with Tone installed will listen for the chirpy Tone audio, and upon hearing one, will flash a pop-up alert asking if the user wants to go to the broadcasted site. When I tested Tone with my roommate this morning, we found that after a little setup time, his ancient MacBook reliably picked up the audio tones sent from my three-year-old Dell laptop, even at minimal volume. But my laptop picked up only one out of every four tones, no matter how loudly he blasted the tones through the MacBook’s speakers.
This technology is actually similar to how people accessed the Internet in the dial-up era. Every AOL subscriber remembers the screeching digital hell chorus whenever they signed on–that was your computer communicating with the Internet via your modem, explains Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic:
This is a choreographed sequence that allowed these digital devices to piggyback on an analog telephone network…. What you’re hearing is the way 20th century technology tunneled through a 19th century network; what you’re hearing is how a network designed to send the noises made by your muscles as they pushed around air came to transmit anything, or the almost-anything that can be coded in 0s and 1s. … That is to say, the sounds weren’t a sign that data was being transferred: they were the data being transferred.
Using audio tones to communicate over long distances predates the Internet, stretching back to when giant phone companies routed calls via audio tone instructions. Proto-hackers gamed that system by “phreaking” or using devices called blue boxes to mimic those audio tones for free calls (and more insidious pranks, says Motherboard). Steve Wozniak was a massive phreaking enthusiast and invited the legendary phreaker Cap’n Crunch to his Berkeley dorm room for training in the phreaking ways. Wozniak and friend Steve Jobs used their phreaking knowledge to set up a black market business at UC Berkeley–and the rest, as they say, is history.