Inspired by bird songs, Chirp is building a platform to transfer data via sound

By Nathaniel Mott , written on October 12, 2012

From The News Desk

Most of the people I interview don't talk about birds. Sure, some services or apps  -- Twitter, Aviary, and Angry Birds, to name a few -- got their name and branding from our avian cohabitants, but no one I've ever spoken with has been inspired by a real, beak-and-feathers living bird.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Chirp CEO Patrick Bergel told me that his company was inspired by a Robin outside his window. Bergel began thinking of the way birds used their songs to communicate information quickly and efficiently, and Chirp was born.

Bergel describes the service, which currently consists of just an iPhone app, as a system for sharing small amounts of data via sound. By using the app, users can "Chirp" photos, links, and short messages that the service then analyzes and transforms into a series of musical notes. When someone else "listens" to a Chirp via the app, that photo, link, or note is automatically downloaded to their phone.

This is actually much, much cooler than it seems at first take. Using the app, I was able to play a Chirp from the company's blog and watch as the app automatically "listened" to the notes and downloaded the associated image to my phone. Later, Bergel played a Chirp via Skype and, on the second try (an error that I'm attributing to my crummy laptop speakers) my phone downloaded that image as well.

When I asked how Chirp is able to grab so much data and make everything work from a technical standpoint, Bergel replied that the app uses "special bird magic." I have a feeling that what Bergel calls "special bird magic" most people would refer to as "sophisticated audio analysis," but I'll let his answer stand.

My main concern with the service was that, once the novelty of sharing something with a couple of cheeps and tweedle-lees, users would get sick of hearing that sound and stop launching the app. Bergel says that Chirp has thought about that, and has already taken steps, such as making the app work at really low volumes, that should mitigate the problem.

"[We're] quite serious about the sound," he says. "A lot of us are either musicians or sound geeks or electronic music types, and we spent a lot of time trying to make the sound very sweet and discreet." The service originally used sounds that sounded like real bird songs, but Bergel says that that confused people and that Chirp had to make the sound a bit more electronic-sounding so people would associate it with data.

Beyond its current sharing capabilities, Bergel says that Chirp's back-end has been designed to receive just about any kind of data. Though the company primarily exists as an iPhone app as of this writing, the ultimate goal is for Chirp's back-end to become a platform that helps other apps take advantage of sound to transfer data.

That got me excited. Last week I wrote about Shazam's ability to identify baseball games in real-time, and wondered whether the service could use high-frequency audio to identify locations or transfer other types of data. Shazam's executive vice president of marketing, David Jones, shot that notion down and said that smartphone microphones aren't sophisticated enough to reliably pick up on those sounds.

Bergel, on the other hand, says that building support for sounds inaudible to the human ear into Chirp would be "fairly trivial," and that the company has actually built systems that can detect ultra-high and ultra-low pitched sounds. The problem isn't necessarily the microphone -- it's the speaker.

"Mobile devices just aren't designed to do anything exciting with bass," he says. (Anyone that's tried to listen to music with the iPhone's built-in speaker can probably attest to that.) "Detection is not so much of a problem, but reproduction is."

For now, then, sounds will have to stay within the sweet spot of smartphone-compatible reproduction and detection. Still, Bergel says that the possibilities for Chirp are exciting. Musicians capable of playing the 20-note progressions that comprise a single Chirp could use the service to share content with their own music, and data could be easily transferred via most types of speakers, like those attached to our many radios, televisions, or phones.

"Sound is everywhere," Bergel says. "Devices for making sound are pretty much commodities now – there are probably more speakers on earth than there are people." With Chirp, each of those speakers can transmit both sound and data quickly and efficiently.

Just like a bird song.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia]