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May 21, 2015

Turn Up the Volume: Google Tone is Here

The latest invention for the Web from the Google research team comes with the goal of data transmission in the form of audio signals. Basically, computers will literally be able to speak to one another as humans do.

This invention is called Google Tone, and it comes as an add-on for the Chrome Web browser. Users who download Tone can instantly share links between their browsers that will lead them to various websites and files that are stored on the Internet. The Google Research Blog said its people have been using the add-on to share design files during their meetings. They have experimented enough to release an experimental version of the app for basic usage, and they now know enough to express some of the apps limitations.

Alex Kauffmann, an interaction researcher at Google, and Boris Smus, a software engineer at Google, co-wrote the blog post that announced the release of Tone to the general public. They wrote about the impetus for the add-on's creation and its goal of making it easier to move information from one computer to the next.

“Tone grew out of the idea that while digital communication methods like email and chat have made it infinitely easier, cheaper, and faster to share things with people across the globe, they've actually made it more complicated to share things with the people standing right next to you,” the bloggers wrote. “Tone aims to make sharing digital things with nearby people as easy as talking to them.”

The promotional video included in the blog post shows a computer sending information to its buddy by speaking through the airwaves. It makes a clicking sound, and when it is done, the buddy opens up the same webpage the sending computer intended. That is accurate as far as simplicity of transmission is concerned, but it misses the mark because there is no actual sound users will hear coming from either computer (not including built-in software tones).

Image via Shutterstock

Kauffmann and Smus state in their post that the researchers initially tried to send files through sounds that humans could hear. That transmission scheme “sounded terrible, so we played it beyond the range of human hearing,” they note. This way, computer speakers and microphones can transmit and receive sounds without disrupting the normal range of hearing of any person around them.

The fact that the system is based on audio, however, does lead to some complications. Transmissions are subject to interference from other audio in a room. They also rely on computers being able to send audio that is loud enough for the receiving computer(s) to interpret. If the sender speaks at a low enough volume, the receiver may not hear the entire message. From there, users can just click the transmit icon and turn up their volume. Simple.

One other problem businesses may encounter with Tone is that the transmission are not encrypted. As users in the comment section of the blog post pointed out, Tone uses the Google Copresence API and will send audio in “cleartext.” This means that any other computer in earshot could potentially intercept links.

For the time being, this means that users should probably keep Tone as just something fun to play with or a method of sharing non-sensitive information. It is not yet ready for primetime and the needs of businesses everywhere. Given some more development, though, it could experience a lot of change and pave the way for similar applications that make encryption standard while keeping Tone's ease of use.

Edited by Dominick Sorrentino
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