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Sound-based system promises chipless NFC now

Stephen Lawson | June 20, 2011
Naratte introduces Zoosh, a technology that lets phones exchange transaction information via inaudible sound waves.

While NFC (near-field communication) gradually emerges to turn mobile phones into payment devices, Silicon Valley startup Naratte is introducing a system it claims can do roughly the same thing without adding a chip to the handset.

On Monday, Naratte introduced Zoosh, a technology that lets phones exchange transaction information via inaudible sound waves. As with NFC, the phone user would just put the phone near to a point-of-sale terminal to redeem a coupon or make a purchase.

Naratte's approach might allow for faster deployment, but some observers raised questions about its technical and market potential.

NFC provides short-range radio communication between phones and point-of-sale devices so users can just tap or point their phones at the device to make a purchase. Advocates say the technology will speed up shop lines and make buying things more convenient for consumers who carry their phones more often than their credit cards.

NFC uses specialized chips, which are already built into a few phones such as the Google Nexus S sold by Sprint Nextel, and are expected in more handsets in the future.

Zoosh involves software that utilizes the speaker and microphone in a handset to send and receive audio signals with another device, similar to the way early modems exchange data by sending tones through the handsets of desk phones cradled in coupler devices. The company has posted a video that shows how it works.

With Zoosh, the tones would be exchanged over short distances and would be in frequencies that typically are inaudible to humans, around 20,000Hz, according to Chad Seguin, Naratte's vice president of engineering. A typical consumer audio device or phone that plays digital music has a range of 20Hz to 20,000Hz.

A phone could exchange these tones directly with a conventional PC that a retailer uses to ring up sales. For specialized terminals without audio capability, an adapter with a microphone and speaker can be added, according to Naratte. In most cases, the adapter would be implemented by the company that sells and services a retailer's point-of-sale equipment.

Zoosh could also be used for transactions between two handsets, including social transactions such as becoming connected on a social-networking service or exchanging contact information, said Naratte CEO Brett Paulson. In addition, coupons or codes for a purchase could be sent to a phone as an audio file, via MMS (multimedia messaging service), says Naratte.

The latter capability expands the technology's reach beyond smartphones to less expensive feature phones, the company said. To redeem the code, the user would just have to play back the audio file at the point of purchase.


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