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.