We still haven’t discovered the perfect way to share information between devices–one that’s ubiquitous and natural. Bump had an interesting interaction approach. Dropbox is powerful but digital. If I want to just send a photo from my phone to your computer, why do I need to get intermediaries like email or USB cords involved to get the job done?
Chirp is a new iPhone app by Animal Systems that’s tackling file sharing in a surprisingly low-tech way. When you want to share, say, a photo, your phone emits a song. Another phone hears the song, and it loads the picture. It’s sort of like file sharing as imagined by The Hunger Games‘ mockingjays.
“We’re called Animal Systems because, well, we look to nature for inspiration,” explains CEO Patrick Bergel. “Specifically, we’ve been looking at how biology encodes information, in this case, and playing around with various related ideas, all with mobile as the starting point. Chirp was the best idea, so we went with that.”
Sending information via audio blips is traditionally slow (just think about fax machines and modems). Technically, any chirp is comprised of 20 different tones, which actually encode 50 bits of information–just enough for a bit of text, like 10 characters of text–that links the receiver up to a specific URL/file stored in the cloud by the sender. In essence, a chirp is a QR code you can hear and record rather than awkwardly photograph.
“Sending messages by sound feels like the way messages should be sent, it fits with our folk understanding of communication,” writes Bergel. “More sophisticated protocols, like Bluetooth or Wi-Fi are alien things–invisible, inscrutable, unlovable. So when they fail (which is often) they tend to enrage or confuse people.”
Bergel isn’t wrong–there is something measurably organic about a sound-based information transfer, adding a “did the message even send?” level of analog transparency to the digital process. But where chirps get exciting is in their ability to scale across technologies. Any speaker system in the entire world could, theoretically, send out a chirp. That includes radios, televisions, ATMs, and restaurants offering discounts to people walking by on the street. A chirp could be the latest “play the record backwards” trick for pop music.
So Animal Systems is approaching the business end of the idea aggressively, by offering APIs so developers can easily design chirps and related hardware, all while pitching the platform to mobile operators, ad agencies, and payment providers. “Tickets, tokens, pictures, favourites, vouchers, coupons, identities, check-ins, log-ins, music, video, in-game content” are all on the company’s list of potential chirpables, so it’s no surprise that they have a systems patent on moving short codes over the air.
That said, is chirping an idea that’s just arrived five years too late? With ubiquitous NFC chips on the horizon, will anyone bother loading an app that’s not part of a phone’s core UI to receive a URL? QR codes sit in one spot, conveniently, but will people be able to hear a chirp, recognize it and pull out their phones in time to decode it before the tones end? I’m not so sure. Then again, with countless billions of speakers in the world, there are certainly a lot of opportunities to try.