Google Tone Lets Chrome Users Share URLs Using Audio

The experimental Chrome extension works on devices that are within earshot of each other. No device pairing is necessary.

Google Tone

A new experimental Chrome extension from Google lets users transmit the URL of a Web page they might be visiting to any system within earshot using audio.

The extension, dubbed Tone, behaves much like a human voice in transmitting the information. Unlike radio waves, Tone's transmissions cannot pass through walls and neither does it require device pairing like Bluetooth does.

When Tone is installed and in active mode, it basically turns on the computer's microphone and uses the system's speakers to exchange URLs with other nearby devices that also have the extension and are connected to the Internet, according to Google.

Tone can be used to send the URL for any Web page including news stories, documents, pictures, blog posts, products, YouTube videos and search results, Google said. Any computer that is within earshot of the transmitting device, even if only via phone or Google Hangout, can receive a Tone notification.

"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," Google researchers Alex Kauffmann and Boris Smus said in a blog post Tuesday.

"Tone aims to make sharing digital things with nearby people as easy as talking to them," they said.

The two researchers described Tone as something that was built for fun over the course of an afternoon but is increasingly being used for serious purposes inside Google. Some examples include Google employees using Tone to share links and documents with others in a meeting, or to exchange files while collaborating on design projects.

Because Tone works much like a human voice in communicating information, it has some limitations. The orientation of the transmitting and receiving devices, for instance, can have an impact on reliability, Google noted. Similarly, just like not everyone hears what someone might be saying, Tone too can have selective hearing. It can miss broadcasts, especially in noisy settings, or when the receiving device is barely within earshot of the transmitting system, Google said.

It also doesn't work on computers with a poor Internet connection, on those without a microphone or on those with microphones that are for any reason incompatible with Tone. Speaker volume and microphone sensitivity issues can limit Tone's functionality as well.

Many of these shortcomings can be overcome through fairly simple measures like raising the volume of the microphones or changing the orientation of computers.

"Many groups at Google have found that the tradeoffs between ease and reliability are worthwhile—it is our hope that small teams, students in classrooms, and families with multiple computers will too," the two researchers said.

Exotic as Tone might appear, it is not the first technology to push the idea of using audio to transmit data between devices.

Back in 2012, researchers at University College London (UCL) released technology they dubbed Chirp for connecting nearby devices to each other using sound. According a description of the technology by the university, devices with the application basically use a tiny audio clip called a chirp to "sing" data to each other.

Like Tone, Chirp too requires no device pairing and can be used to share text, pictures and videos using sound. With Chirp, the data that is to be shared is first sent to the cloud and the chirping sound itself is used as a link to the data. Devices with the application that are within earshot of the chirping sound follow the link to the data.

Chirp was originally released for iOS and almost immediately became the top downloaded application in the U.K., France, Germany, Canada, Ireland and France, according to UCL.

Since its launch, Chirp has been spun out as an independent entity and recently announced a crowdfunding campaign on CrowdCube, where it is trying to raise the equivalent of around $620,000. So far, it has raised the equivalent of $350,000.

Google Tone is available for download on Google's App Store.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.