Acoustic barcodes deliver data with a fingernail and microphone

Either through QR codes, RFID, or near field communication, there seems to be some desire to share tiny pieces of data in a more physical and accessible form. [Chris Harrison], [Robert Xiao], and [Scott E. Hudson] of the HCI Institute at Carnegie Mellon have come up with a fairly interesting solution of making data more physical. They call it Acoustic Barcodes, and it’s able to store over a billion unique IDs in a small strip of plastic.

By engraving a barcode pattern into a piece of wood, stone, glass, or plastic, the guys then attached a microphone to the barcode and ran their fingernails across their invention. A computer interprets the sounds of a finger scraping against the acoustic barcode and produces a series of 1s and 0s.

This binary code can be used to look up various items in a database, or perform actions on a computer. In the video after the break, you can see these acoustic barcodes attached to a whiteboard to provide real tactile control of a video projector.

You can check out a PDF of the Acoustic Barcode paper here.

44 thoughts on “Acoustic barcodes deliver data with a fingernail and microphone

  1. Super cool! I love some of the stuff that comes out of CMU when it comes to Human Computer Interactions. Just really solid stuff.

  2. If you had a 2D engraved pattern (either an abstract one like a topo map or a real image like a picture) then, depending on what roundabout trail you drag your fingernail across the pattern, different sound patterns would be generated. You could use this a door lock – dragging your fingernail in the right way across the right areas of the pattern would open your door. And everyone in the family could have a different trail across the pattern as a different “key”.

      1. You can also use this technology on cars and roads. I remember that every time I use expressways there’s this sort of shallow cement humps on the road (which I honestly think is to wake up a sleepy driver), and with the correct pattern on the cement humps, an interpreter on the car can tell you what road you are on, or where the road (or even the lane) will take you to.

      2. TacticalNinja: You are onto something brilliant there. It could be a backup to existing GPS solutions. Plastic mats to be laid out on the road, to make vehicles automatically slow down, in case of an accident or road work. They could notify the car that it’s approaching a tunnel, so it automatically closes all windows and recycles the air.

        This is an inexpensive solution for road-to-vehicle communication, and is simply put brilliant.

      1. Cheaper to replace than a worn keypad though, because it is just an engraved surface. Replacement cost would equal that of a metal plate and engraving. Super great idea I think.

      2. @dfg, i think @Zee was more concerned about security, not longevity of the device.

        if i have to drag my nails in a particular patter to open the door, the wear will show that patter much easily than it would in a keypad.

  3. Reminds me of a project our HCI professor showed us a demo of. They used rough wallpaper and analysed the sound/it’s change over time to recognize gesture (only one microphone, so no analysis of the the time of travel of the soundwaves)
    I can’t remember who did this though

  4. I seem to remember several years back you could get helium balloons at party stores that had a zipstrip attached and played a birthday song when you ran your thumbnail over it, using the balloon as a resonating chamber.
    This seems like a cool new use.

  5. How about putting this in a car, replacing the microphone with a vibration sensor and then use rumble strips to transmit information to a car as they drive over them. (c)2012 me!

    1. It’s been tried.

      One was to encode the speed limit in the code, and have that flash up on the car dash. At one point it was proposed to paint bar codes on the road…

      I wanted to run hoses across the road with whistles at the end. When you ran over them it would play a tune (a bit like the ol’ time bell that would ding when you drove into a service station).

      Someone tried cutting grooves in the road to play noises as well.

      The world is full of people doing weird crap. Avoid the ones who are serious.

  6. A friend of mine proposed putting rumble strips in the road leading to Devil’s Tower that would play the opening notes to the “Close Encounters” theme.

  7. Reminds me of a gift from thinkgeek that was a red strip of plastic that you bite on one end and run your fingernail down the length. It would say happy birthday or some other short phrase in your head =]

  8. Imagine a circular disk of this stuff rotating! You’d need some sort of mechanical arm to press down on it though or your finger would get tired.

  9. I’m interested in seeing if they are using some sort of registration to let the software know what is the beginning. Basically, how does it react if you run the sound the opposite direction? Does it still register as the same id ( ex: 1234 )? Or the exact opposite ( ex: 4321 )?

  10. it’s just a low resolution 1d barcode.

    the only advantage of it is that it could be used on devices that does not have cameras. namely, most dumb cellphones could just dial a number, transmit those fingernail-clicking noises and give you the information.

    besides that, nothing really new or better than traditional barcode. The ‘billion ID’ quote is more of an excuse that the low resolution is not low enough than that it’s an exiting feature.

  11. This really looks like a solution that’s looking for a problem. You could do all the things in the video with optical bar cards which are well entrenched and it would save on you fingernail.

  12. I imagine that you would have to run a fingernail or whatever you are using over the grooves at the same speed in order for it to register the item properly. Not sure, how this is being done.

  13. Hey, I have an idea for the next big thing –
    Paper cards, that you insert into a slot. The
    computer reads small amounts of data from
    holes punched in the cards! Is that brilliant
    or what??

  14. Hasn’t the “music industry”
    Already been doing something like this,
    for a while now?
    helped kill sales of DVD audio,I think.
    ..or the song identifier apps on cell phones.

    …sort of wonder If we’ll see an “infringment” lawsuit
    from any companys, if this catches on.

  15. If they really are “able to store over a billion unique IDs in a small strip of plastic” they’ve invented a pretty useful storage medium.

    I suspect (yet again) HaD’s proof-reading department has missed something – surely “ONE OF over a billion unique ID’s”

  16. You can also use this technology on cars and roads. I remember that every time I use expressways there’s this sort of shallow cement humps on the road (which I honestly think is to wake up a sleepy driver), and with the correct pattern on the cement humps, an interpreter on the car can tell you what road you are on, or where the road (or even the lane) will take you to.

      1. Well, a GPS (as pin-point as it can be) still can’t tell which lane you are on. What if you’re under a tunnel where GPS is not available? Also, I find this technology far cheaper than GPS. Although, you must be in a certain speed for the correct acoustics to be interpreted. (which I honestly think can be refined in more research.)

  17. All of these comments, bs and otherwise, and, no one has mentioned this maybe having potential for blind people. I have heard, don’t know for sure, that many blind people don’t actually know how to read braille. Something like this could be used to help identify points for a newly blinded person, or, one that has never learned braille.

    1. This could be used in conjunction with a smartphone to be like a qr code, but for blind people. Unlike a qr code or conventional barcode, they do not need to aim a camera at an invisible (to them) spot. All they need to do is to run the edge of a smartphone over the easily locatable barcode to identify it.

  18. As many have said, the basis for this is quite old. I first saw the plastic talking strip on a balloon back around 1995. No doubt the origins go back much further..

    Still fun to play with.

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