Tech viewpoint on audio 'watermarking'
A view from Fergus Hynd

Tech viewpoint on audio 'watermarking'

While most of us may have used a service like Shazam, few of us are aware of what is going on behind the scenes. When you Shazam an audio track, the service has to search a huge database in a process very similar to CSI-style fingerprint matching. But, for all its virtues, "fingerprinting" often feels cumbersome with a device that listens to everything, using up precious processing and battery power.

However, there is an exciting path less-travelled emerging in the form of ultrasonic "watermarking" technologies. These inaudible micro-codes send small parcels of data to a second-screen device to open up a whole new world to media and content owners by working in the browser or being built into existing apps.

This represents an exciting juncture in the development of second-screen technologies. For a start, the way that data is collected offers genuine real-time audience and demographic information on TV viewers, by show or channel, eliminating the current wait times that dog existing measurement systems.

How great would it be if odds tailored to the action on screen appeared on your tablet during the game?

On top of this, there’s the opportunity for advertisers to prompt interactions instantaneously. Let’s imagine for a second that you live for the adrenaline rush that comes with having a flutter on live sporting events. However, you long for an in-play betting experience that doesn’t require you to wait until Ray Winstone’s big, fat head floats around your screen. How great would it be if odds tailored to the action on screen instantly appeared on your smartphone or tablet as the game is taking place? Moreover, through the use of sound codes within the audio stream, you actually receive bespoke web events dependent on your personal betting history and cookies.

There remain challenges, though. In a recent proof of concept we trialled with Vizeum, the technology was seen to work in the latest Android handsets. However, scaling this technology will take the right partners. The UK is in a strong position to lead the uptake, with players such as Sky, which boasts a stable of world-class sports rights alongside its competency in the gambling space.

Beyond the second screen, ultrasonic audio watermarks can be applied in the real world. Imagine them implanted around a museum or city, silently prompting your phone to guide you around the space. This could be the secret to unlocking mass adoption of the technology, as all watermarking needs is a speaker to transmit the codes and a browser-enabled device with a microphone to receive and interact with them.

As with any technology, the sign of its advancement is its increased invisibility, to paraphrase Arthur C Clarke. In a world of connected devices, this technology has the ability to be integrated into any space or message, allowing for seamless device-to-device interaction.

Fergus Hynd is the technology R&D innovation consultant at Pebble (Code)