All Noise, No Product

I’ve just come across a product called SonicNotify, and I’m wracking my brain to try to find a way to see it as a good idea. I’m struggling.

SonicNotify. You spray red noise into your audience, and their phones become infuriating. Or something.

The world is just coming to terms with spatial advertising and services that “link” to their mobile devices. I’ve quite enjoyed playing with QR codes, but there are plenty of other mechanisms enjoying some amount of exposure, such  as Bluejacking: in the early days of Bluetooth, some advertisers experimented with devices that would push out Bluetooth messages to anybody who strayed within range. Now that most Bluetooth devices capable of receiving such messages “switch off” Bluetooth after a couple of minutes, they need to be coupled with a visual medium that says, for example, “turn on Bluetooth to get our business card”, or something, which is slightly less insidious.

SonicNotify works by having a smartphone app that passively listens for high-frequency sound waves, which act as carriers to the marketing message. These messages can be broadcast at live events over existing PA systems, embedded in traditional media like radio or television, or transmitted from localised devices concealed in billboards or alongside products on shelves. Lady Gaga tried it out in a concert, in order to – I don’t know – distract her fans from actually listening to the music by giving them things to play with on their phones, instead.

Buy Doritos? I never would have thought of that on my own! Thanks, SonicNotify!

Let’s stop for a moment and think about everything that’s wrong with this idea:

  • I have to install a closed-source third-party app that runs in the background and keeps my microphone open at all times? We’ve got a name for that kind of device: a bug.
  • This app would presumably need to run the whole time, reducing battery lifespan and consuming clock cycles… and for what? So that I can see more advertisements?
  • Thinking about the technology – I’m not convinced that mobile phone microphones are well-equipped to be able to pick up ultrasonic waves with any accuracy, especially not once they’re muffled in a bag or trouser pocket. I can’t always even hear my phone ringing when it’s in my pocket, but it expects to be able to hear something “ringing” some distance away?
  • For that matter: television and radio speakers, and existing PA systems, aren’t really designed to be able to faithfully reproduce ultrasound, either. Why would they? A good entertainment system is one which sounds best at all of the frequencies that humans can hear. Anything else is useless.
  • And let’s not forget that different people have different hearing ranges. Thinking back to the controversies surrounding anti-youth alarm The Mosquito: do you really want to be surrounded by sharp, tinnitus-like noises just on the cusp of your ability to hear them?

No thank you, SonicNotify. I don’t think there’s mileage in this strange and quirky product idea.

9 replies to All Noise, No Product

  1. It’s obviously a stupid idea…

    “I can’t always even hear my phone ringing when it’s in my pocket, but it expects to be able to hear something “ringing” some distance away?” – there, you’re comparing your ears to the microphone on the phone, which doesn’t make that much sense – they work differently (the phone is not using related neurones for other things, for one). I wonder if the muffling effect is the same if the source is outside but the receiver is inside the pocket? That’s more like putting your head in your pocket, really. Would you be able to hear a phone at head height if your head was in your pocket?

    I agree that the microphones might not be so good at high pitched frequencies, given that they were designed to pick up human voices – but they might have got lucky I suppose. Also, it’s possible that higher pitched sounds are less dampened by surroundings (but maybe frequency only affects that sort of thing for transverse, not longitudinal, waves – I don’t really know!)

    All in all, you had me at “it’s a bug” tbh.

    • You’re right: I’m making some naïve assumptions there. My suspicion that mobile phones microphones can’t handle high frequencies is based primarily on the fact that they can’t transmit them (as anybody who’s ever tried to listen to music over a mobile connection knows!), as I first discovered when, in 1999, I experimented with hooking up conventional acoustic coupler modems to GSM cellular telephones.

      I’ve tried to test the other point you made, but sadly I’m unable to fit my head into my pocket. Even if I could, though, the test would be unfair: my mobile phone only has one microphone (whereas I have two ears) and it’s generally pressed against the inside of my pocket (and is therefore muffled by my leg, too: a lump of skin and fat that acts as a very effective sound suppressor).

      • a) Nerd.
        b) You clearly need bigger pockets.
        c) Try putting your head between your knees with blutac in one ear. Pics or it didn’t happen.

      • I doubt it’s a limitation of the microphone but rather that of the compression/digital to analogue conversion done to get data over the GSM network, no reason why a local app would be so limited. As I remember there was a really popular novelty cigarette lighter app around in the early days of the App Store that used inaudible acoustic signals to communicate between two iPhones that let you ‘pass on the flame’. Granted it was designed to work at close range.

    • Call me paranoid, but I don’t see any reason to trust a closed-source application developed by a company whose intention is to profile me and deliver me advertisements to not consider recording at least the locations at which I “picked up” their tones, even if they don’t record any more data than that.

      Not to mention the risk of abuse if such a program, having been granted access to the microphone, is compromised by a hacker. When you give privileges to a piece of software, you place a trust in its security. I see no benefit to me, the user, in making such a trust. YMMV.

      • No absolutely I agree, I’m only pointing out that it’s inefficient for them to do so, not that I trust them to make a moral decision about it!

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