Chirp, a new app that transmits data via a burst of “digital birdsong”, aims to simplify the way users share images and other files between smartphones.
Chirp plays a two-second long noise that sounds as if it was made by a robotic bird. When heard by other devices it triggers a download.
The software was developed by Animal Systems, a spin-off business from University College London (UCL).
It is free to use, but companies will be charged a fee for add-on services.
At the moment users are limited to sending pictures, website links or 140-character text messages. These appear in a feed similar to Facebook’s timeline.
Other applications such as Android Beam, Bump, Datasync and Dropbox allow users to swap material via bluetooth, wi-fi or links to cloud-based storage.
But Chirp has the advantage that it can quickly send data to multiple devices at once without them needing to be either paired or have a wireless connection.
If recipients are offline their devices will remember the “chirp” and download associated content later.
Chirp transmits data via a burst of "digital birdsong" and aims to simplify the way users share images and other files between smartphones
“We are pretty sure this is unique,” said Patrick Bergel, the firm’s chief executive.
“We solve the problem of having to pair devices to move data. It’s fairly novel to be able to transmit information to anyone who is in earshot – a large number of devices can share the same information at the same time using sound.
“You can also use it as a device shifting mechanism. In the future you will be able chirp yourself a link to a map from your laptop.”
Patrick Bergel says Chirp’s distinctive sound allows it to work at low volumes in relatively noisy locations such as pubs, clubs or busy streets.
It can also work over public address systems or radio transmissions – potentially allowing broadcasters a way to send up-to-date pictures or links to background information; or an advertiser to send coupons or snippets of a song or promotional video.
Animal Systems subscribes to a “blacklist” service to prevent users transmitting known pornographic or illegal-content website links. However, it does not plan to moderate other material.
The application works by uploading a user’s material to the firm’s servers. The data is then identified with a 50-bit address space: one of trillions of available identifiers.
This location is then sent to the sender’s device. When the user presses a button in the app it plays an audio-encoded version of the address.
Data has long been passed between machines in the form of sound, including recordings on tapes used to load programs into 1980s home computers and early modems dialling into networks.
Even so, Patrick Bergel said he had taken steps to prevent others copying his product.
“We have a systems patent on moving short codes over the air,” he said.
“We have [also] solved a lot of difficult problems. There’s a lot of technical issues around moving data and making it robust against noise and echoes.”
Having launched the app the five-man team behind it will now focus on offering premium services to marketers and other businesses.
Patrick Bergel said these could include:
• A guarantee that uploaded content would be permanently kept on the firm’s servers.
• Access to analytical data letting firms track whose devices have “listened” to their chirp.
• The ability to send video messages that play within the Chirp app.
Patrick Bergel said the ultimate goals was to see manufacturers pre-install Chirp on handsets.
However, he must first convince users that they need the service at a time when wi-fi, 4G data and advanced bluetooth connectivity are becoming increasingly common.
For now Chirp is only available as an iPhone app. An Android version is promised “soon”.
Club-winged Manakin, the only bird known to sing with its wings, contains some secrets of its performance in its bones, researchers have found.
The club-winged Manakin, which lives in the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador, performs a mate-attracting song by rubbing its wings together.
A Cornell University team from the US scanned its bones.
They found unlike most birds, it has dense, solid wing bones that help it to emit a violin-like sound.
Lead researcher Kim Bostwick, curator of birds and mammals at the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates, and her colleagues carried out CT scans of Manakin wings.
These revealed that, while most birds have hollow wing bones, the club-winged Manakin’s are “bulky and solid”.
“Birds tend not to want to carry around a lot of extra weight,” said Dr. Kim Bostwick.
“[So the fact] that the club-winged Manakin is carrying around such enlarged, solid and densely mineralized bones, must mean they have some great contribution to sound production.”
During a courtship display, male club-winged Manakins (Machaeropterus deliciosus) knock their wings above their backs to create sound.
Dr. Kim Bostwick thinks that having ridged, vibrating feathers attached to a solid, stiff mass is the best way to make sure the vibrations are emitted from the feather as sound, rather than being absorbed into the bone.
Dr. Kim Bostwick was the first to decode the mechanism behind the Manakin's unique sound, revealing a new kind of birdsong
Dr. Kim Bostwick was the first to decode the mechanism behind the Manakin’s unique sound – revealing a new kind of birdsong.
She began travelling to South America to study and film the birds in 1997, as a graduate student of Yale University ornithologist Richard Prum.
But the bird’s wing movements were so fast that the footage she obtained then yielded no clues.
It was only when Dr. Kim Bostwick returned to Ecuador with a portable high-speed camera, which recorded images 30 times faster than previous attempts, that the exact movements of the wings became clear.
Her footage, along with analysis of the diminutive bird’s anatomy, showed that Manakins knock their wings together more than 100 times per second in order to sing.
When the wings meet, a specialized feather, with a stiff tip bent at a 45 degree angle, rubs against another feather that has seven separate ridges. This mechanism produces a mating call.
Similar performances are well known in the insect world, but nothing the same has been recorded in vertebrates before.
Charles Darwin was fascinated by club winged Manakins and wrote in 1871 about the remarkable diversity of the sounds made by these birds and their importance for “sexual purposes”.
The evolution of their “violin wings” is an example of sexual selection, a term used to describe how the mating preferences of females can impact on male characteristics.
Dr. Kim Bostwick said the fact that it existed revealed that female Manakins have a preference for the males that make this “fascinating sound”.
Exactly why females were initially attracted to it is less clear. Dr. Kim Bostwick’s next step is to find out more about “the evolutionary story of how the strange features we see in the club-winged Manakin came to be”.
She has already discovered some clues about how the club-winged Manakin “derived” from the ancestors it shares with “normal-winged” birds.
“Some of [its] closest relatives <<share>>, in an evolutionary sense, behaviors, sounds, and even some anatomical precursors of the crazy traits we see in the club-wings,” she explained.
But a century and a half after Darwin was dazzled by it, the club-winged Manakin apparently still has a lot to teach us about evolution.