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Can ultrasound give IoT an adoption boost?

Everlink wants to make an under-explored tech as pervasive as QR codes

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I remember the first time I encountered a startup called Chirp, which was using ultrasound to send files between iPhones via soundwaves, 11 years ago. As my colleague Drew Olanoff at The Next Web wrote at the time, “it’s like voodoo magic”. 

But ultrasonic communication between devices hasn’t become the pervasive technology its magic qualities might have suggested more than a decade ago. That’s despite the efforts of a number of startups around the world over the years.

Ultrasound tech emits inaudible sound from a smartphone’s speaker to communicate with another device. US-based Lisnr is a current leader in the space, offering tech to enable easier payments, retail, and mobility experiences.

But Everlink thinks it’s got an edge on the competition, with a new take on ultrasound that solves some of the issues that co-founder and CEO Isaac Harmer believes have held the tech back from wide adoption.

Everlink is built around the idea that the consumer internet-of-things market has great potential, but is suffering slow growth because current IoT technology is limited and expensive.

The startup believes its ultrasound tech is the solution, and it has some advantages that could lift it above the competition.

“With the current tech on the market, there are a limited number of user experiences you can create. And while you can create really efficient experiences, they're very, very expensive to do,” says Harmer.

“There's maybe five or six ultrasonic verification tech providers on the market. Right now they all use a form of verification called data over sound, which is basically just encoding binary into ultrasonic signals. So for example, if a frequency increases it's a one, if it decreases it’s a zero.”

The problem with this, Harmer says, is that it’s slow, with each binary digit taking 0.8 of a second to transmit. And if there’s any interference disrupting the signal, such as a lot of background noise, the process has to begin again.

Everlink has created tech that can transmit more data over ultrasound more quickly. 

“We use the physical characteristics of sound itself to create an identifier,” explains Harmer. “So we might look at characteristics like ‘what frequency is it playing at and within what bandwidth?’, also ‘how long is it being played for specifically’, and ‘what is the phase shift?’

“By emitting a single frequency, you can get a number of data points from a large pool of possibilities. And what that allows us to do is create a huge amount of entropy in a very short space of time… 

“This means we can have an error rate. Our competitors are extremely prone to failure due to general noise interference. And that's something which doesn't affect us.”

This tech is packaged up into three SDKs, for iOS, Android, and Javascript. But how can Manchester-based Everlink’s tech be used? Harmer says the startup is currently involved in pilot projects in fields like parking and video conferencing.

The technology is useful, for example, if a workplace wants a quick and seamless way to let workers into a staff carpark.

Harmer says one trial Everlink is currently conducting is with a carpark operator that previously used a mobile app that drivers had to open when they arrived at the gate. The app sent an SMS to the gate to instruct it to open. If the carpark is underground, getting a mobile signal to the barrier so it can receive that SMS (if it can be sent in the first place) can be expensive.

With Everlink’s solution, the driver’s phone sends an ultrasonic key, which carries through the car window to a sensitive microphone at the barrier. It’s faster and lower cost than the alternatives, Harmer says.

Another use case Everlink is testing is video conferencing. In these days of hybrid working, it’s not uncommon for two or more people in the same office to be on the same video call from their laptops. If you’ve ever done that, you’ll know how it can create a horrible feedback loop of noise if you’re not wearing headphones. 

Everlink’s tech can help video conferencing apps avoid this. Harmer says they’re working with a company he prefers not to name, to integrate the tech into an SDK for use by video conferencing software providers.

A third current pilot project is linked to class attendance tracking. Harmer says further pilots involving ID verification and proptech use cases are on the horizon.

How it started

Harmer has an engineering degree focused on design and innovation, but after graduating he went into sales and marketing roles at SaaS companies in London. Everlink is his first dive into combining those experiences as a startup founder.

“We incorporated the company in 2018, but for about the first two years we were trying to build an event networking app that had ultrasound within it,” he explains.

“In 2020, we took a pivot when we started to notice other use cases. We felt like events networking was quite small compared to some of the industries we could be active in. So we decided to build our technology into a set of SDKs accessible to everyone.”

And so that’s what the Everlink team–comprising Harmer plus CTO Nathan Kuruvilla and COO Jess Hoyland–have been working on. 

But as is the way with startups, it hasn’t all been straightforward. Harmer says their first pilot project exposed bugs that led to a rebuild of the product.

And then in 2021 they nearly signed a deal with an event ticketing company that ended up not happening when the company asked “what happens if someone records the unique audio code of someone else’s ticket?”

“We were like ‘ah, that's a really good question’,” admits Harmer. “And that led to one of our biggest innovations. Our audio codes are dynamic; they change every five seconds, but we can make them change as quickly as we want. And it's all offline compatible”

With those experiences under the startup’s belt, Harmer is upbeat about the future. Patents are pending, pilot projects are underway, and Everlink has secured its first paying customer, a retail loyal product.

“The great thing about our technology is once we're integrated and something's got going, the gross margins are 99%+ because our audio codes and our technology is extremely lightweight,” Harmer claims. “We don't actually even transmit audio files between devices and the server. We do it all as text, so it makes it extremely scalable.”

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