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Business trends

Sound waves offer new way to lock doors and secure payments

Google Home and Amazon Echo call Japanese entrepreneurs into action

The availability of AI-based smart speakers like the Amazon Echo is encouraging more companies to pursue business opportunities involving such speakers.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- With artificial intelligence-based smart speakers made by companies such as Amazon.com and Google becoming commonplace, there has been a recognition that sound waves are about to become a new frontier of sophisticated communications technology that could do away with the need for keyboards and other devices.

With sound wave communications soon to become commercially available, there has been a surge in startups racing to develop leading-edge technologies, such as artificial intelligence for voice recognition.

One technology, called soundcode -- known as the QR code of sound -- has been generating particular buzz among entrepreneurs. 

QR codes are a type of bar code that contain information about the item to which it is attached, and which is readable by digital cameras. Japan's big banks have been teaming up on QR code-based payment services, but the technology may already be outdated, according to person familiar with the industry, suggesting sound-operated technology offers a more advanced code system that is difficult to tamper with.

Developed by Field System based in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, soundcode uses high-frequency waves that are inaudible to the human ear. Speakers emit sound waves between 15 and 20 kilohertz, and information used to verify identities and for other purposes is picked up by microphone.

In collaboration with EDGEof, a Tokyo-based company that supports startups, Field System has developed soundcode-based smart locks that use soundcode keys sent to users' smartphones for a limited time. Since the key is sent as sound rather than as a digital signal, it can be sent to smartphones outside the mobile network.

The technology is set to be commercialized for building entrances from April, and Field System has patented it on the global scale. It could find a lucrative market in China, where QR codes have been tampered with in the past.

"I hope to find uses [for the technology] such as for the sharing economy, like home-sharing and smartphone-based payment services," said Field System Director Takashige Tsukuma.

The availability of AI-based smart speakers, such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, is encouraging more companies to pursue business opportunities involving such speakers.

Tokyo-based Voicy distributes financial news and other content through both Amazon and Google. Its original news blog is also popular, with the number of active monthly users surpassing 200,000.

"With the advent of AI-based speakers, voice has come to be recognized as media," said Voicy CEO Kentaro Ogata. 

Tokyo-based Hmcomm, a startup of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, has developed original artificial intelligence that can recognize voices. It has built a system for the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ to improve customer database management based on customers' comments, and which is also used at the bank's call center.

"Thanks to AI speakers by Amazon and Google, the prices of parts such as microphones have come down and it has become easier for startups to make speakers," said Hmcomm's CEO Koji Mitsumoto. The company aims to become a platform for voice recognition services for corporate customers, he added.

Meanwhile, Tokyo-based Empath is developing technology to recognize emotions through voices. It has gathered voice data from 40,000 people, and plans to offer the service for free to collect more data.

The technology can be used for software development kits for robots and smart speakers, said Empath CEO Takaaki Shimoji. Overseas, the technology is being used in the United Arab Emirates to analyze the relationship between emotion and work style.

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