In depth: A new app lets you send pictures via sound

A little birdy told me that a new app called Chirp could revolutionise how we all communicate

It's not often that a jaded veteran like me falls in love with an app. But it happened this week with a new app called Chirp. It's based on one of those rare technologies like HTTP or XML that at first seems trifling, but ends up changing everything.

To oversimplify, Chirp uses sound to transmit words, pictures and URLs from one phone to another.

It's called Chirp, because its data transmission sounds like a robotic bird.

First, I'll tell you how Chirp works. Then I'll tell you why I think this bird has wings and could change how we all share data.

How Chirp works

Chirp was created by a company called Animal Systems, which was a spinoff company by eggheads in the Computer Science Department at the University College London.

The current version is for iOS only, but an Android version is coming soon.

Here's how it works.

To use Chirp, you open the app, and ask the recipient of your choice -- it could be one person or 10,000 people -- to open the app as well.

You can take a picture with your phone, or choose a picture from your phone's camera roll. Alternatively, you can enter a note, or a website URL.

Chirp gives you a yellow button. Just press it, and a two-second chirp sends your content to everyone else within earshot. Your words or your picture pop up on their screens a second or two after the chirp sounds.

But the data doesn't itself travel via sound. What happens is that the chirp sound contains two proprietary protocols -- an audio protocol and a network protocol.

Basically, the app first uploads your content to the cloud, then generates a code for the content, and converts that code into sound. It sends the sound, which is received by the other person's app, and then decodes it. It's basically an Internet link, which downloads the words or text from the cloud to their device.

It works offline, so you can send the chirp without a connection, and receive it without a connection, too. Later, when you connect, you'll get the picture or text.

Surprisingly, it even functions in noisy environments because the app is optimized to listen for exactly the kinds of tones generated by the app.

Chirp is just one application of Animal Systems' technology. The technology could be used in an enormous number of other ways. And Animal Systems says it's hatching an API so developers can incorporate the technology into other products.

Why Chirp is revolutionary

Someone on Sand Hill Road should throw a hundred million dollars at Animal Systems immediately.

For starters, every major company in Silicon Valley is going to want to buy it, from Apple to Google to Twitter to Facebook to Microsoft, and incorporate it into their offerings. Chirp should hold out and make it a universal standard.

But more importantly, Chirp solves all kinds of problems or, rather, radically improves the process of sharing content in very specific ways.

For example, remember Color? That app enabled strangers at a party to share photos without logging in. By simply using the app, pictures taken by other Color users simply popped up on your screen, along with every picture they'd ever taken ever using Color. Excitement about Color was largely drowned out by criticism of privacy violations and fears about creepy snooping.

Since then, lots of companies have been trying to figure out how to enable location-specific, ad hoc social networks where strangers in the same location can easily exchange words and pictures.

Chirp is a fantastic alternative to Color, because it's so instantaneous and easy to use, and because the sharing won't penetrate through walls and out into the street, like Color did.

With alternatives, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, texting, website uploading and others, there is some requirement for pairing devices, entering in passwords, logging in, addressing messages and other barriers.

With Chirp, you press one button to send. The recipient does nothing except open the app to get a Twitter-like stream of all incoming chirps.

Note that because Chirp uses sound, you can transmit data over a phone as easily as someone in the room.

Chirps can be viral. When you receive a chirp, it appears on your phone's screen inside the Chirp app, right above the yellow button. The second you get a chirp, you can press the button to send it.

But here's the mind-blowing part: As cool as Chirp is for fun, personal sharing, it's even better for mass communications.

For example, TV shows constantly tell viewers to follow them on Twitter or go to some website. What they're doing is giving the audience a homework assignment, making them type a code in order to receive some information.

However, with Chirp, TV shows could just play the chirps. Viewers watching at home would passively receive all the content chirped by the show.

TV shows could allow photo "uploads" by phone, too. You can imagine TV shows providing a number that has an answering machine. Users could snap a picture, then leave the chirp of the picture as a message on the machine.

It works just as well on radio, on podcasts, in videos and any situation where sound is involved.

For example, the Chirp demonstration video casually throws in some chirps. And if you have the app running while you watch the video, the picture in the video is magically transferred to your phone.

You can hold a phone up to a microphone in a crowded auditorium -- or embed the sound file in your slides -- and everyone in the room can get a copy of your slides.

I tested the concept of using Chirp for mass communication on a live netcast this week called MacBreak Weekly.

I joined the show via Skype video all the way from Greece. To demonstrate Chirp, I held my iPhone up to the microphone, and let the app chirp a picture of my sister's dog. People in the California studio got it instantly. They then re-chirped it, and one of the hosts of the show, himself Skyping in from Massachusetts, got the picture, as did the studio audience and the people watching the live-streaming video online. In literally a few seconds, I transmitted a photograph across the world to thousands of strangers. The video recording can transmit it to tens of thousands more.

I recommend the whole show, but you can see the Chirp demo starting just after the 1:33 mark in the video.

By the way, If you listen to this video with Chirp running, you'll get a picture of my sister's dog, too.

The potential applications for Chirp are seemingly endless.

Movie studios could put chirps at the end of movie trailers to send viral marketing campaigns to the audience. After people leave the theater, they can use Chirp to share the same campaigns.

Nightclub DJs could mix chirps into their music, sending a constant stream of photos out to everyone in the room.

Kiosks could use chirps instead of Bluetooth or other short-range wireless technologies. The benefit would be much higher ease of use.

You can embed chirps with pictures, URLs, contacts or text-based notes in your phone voice-mail message.

The creators of Chirp even imagine embedded chirps in car horns and doorbells.

Chirp is a really fun app today, and could become a widespread standard that everybody will using in the near future.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

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