If you polled mobile pundits about what the next big thing was going to be, Near Field Communications (NFC) might take the top spot. The technology, which allows devices to exchange data with a quick touch, is theoretically going to change the way people pay for stuff. But it’ll only do that once most phones come with NGC technology built in–and today, only a handful of phones, such as Google and Samsung’s Nexus S and Nokia’s Astound, are ready to go.
That opens up a window of opportunity for a startup called Naratte. It’s created a technology called Zoosh that lets virtually any phone perform NFC-like tricks without needing to support NFC. Zoosh does that by using phones’ speakers and microphones to transmit data encoded in audio at ultrasonic frequencies. The company showed me several demos last week, including making PayPal-style payments by tapping two phones together and digital loyalty cards and coupons that could be redeemed by touching a phone to an inexpensive gizmo that hooks up to a retailer’s payment-processing terminal. (The coupon was in the form of a MMS message with video and embedded Zoosh audio–pretty clever.)
In the demos, at least, everything worked as advertised. As with NFC, the transfer is instantaneous, secured, and doesn’t involving Bluetooth-like pairing or other complications. (In fact Zoosh can be used to simplify Bluetooth pairing.)
Naratte isn’t planning to turn Zoosh into a consumer brand or build payment networks or even produce full-blown phone apps. Instead, it plans to work with companies that are already involved in payments and other potential applications for Zoosh, such as SparkBase, a private-label loyalty-card provider that’s build a digital wallet service called Paycloud based on Zoosh. If Zoosh is solid from a technical standpoint, its fate will rest on Naratte’s ability to sign up partners. And that will presumably be impacted by just how rapidly NFC takes off–assuming that it lives up to its advance billing.
Even if NFC is a hit, it’s going to be years before the world can assume that it’s built into every phone. That should give Naratte a fair shot at turning Zoosh into a useful stopgap. I’ll be interested to see if it takes off.