Sound You Can’t Hear Drives Visa’s Push for Lisnr

August 14, 2015         By: Steven Anderson

It’s a strange idea, sound you can’t hear, but it’s also the bare-bones notion behind Lisnr, one of just three startup companies selected as part of Visa’s Everywhere Initiative. These new startups were encouraged to help give Visa new ways to carry out the various parts of mobile payments, as well as inspire new loyalty in users and drive rewards programs.

Lisnr, meanwhile, brought its own twist to the picture with inaudible sound.

The Lisnr inaudible sound system works with any device that has a speaker and a microphone, so from a smartphone all the way up to a desktop PC, the Lisnr system can deliver its capability. It can transfer data in a similar fashion as Bluetooth, and can also be used as a means to do just about anything from direct users to a concession stand at a ballpark or concert venue to unlocking instant replay material or the like.

Lisnr’s CEO, Rodney Williams, noted that the pitch itself was “…pretty simple.” He described how the Lisnr system could be used as an authentication method for most any financial second-screen transaction setup, including mobile payments. Thus, users could carry out payments by placing the device in question near a card reader, playing a set of inaudible tones, and then allowing the receiving system to catch those tones and carry out the relevant instructions.

Since the tones can’t be heard, it can in turn be used in other places as well, like with television screens. A person could be watching a show, and during the episode enable Visa Checkout. Then, users could buy the thing that’s currently on the episode using Lisnr technology to make the purchase.

This isn’t the only potential use for Lisnr’s full product line; the company, at last report, has over 60 active pilot projects engaged right now, and many of these are with, as Williams describes, “…Blue Chip, tier-one customers.”

It’s an interesting enough idea, though it would need to be seen in full operation first. Theoretically, a device that communicates solely by inaudible sound might be the most secure kind of transmission there is; that which can’t be heard generally can’t be replicated, at least not by relatively covert means. A radio transmission might be intercepted and decrypted, but a transmission that depend on inaudible sound might well be harder to break.

All that would really remain is for a fairly large number of users—a couple thousand at least, I’d say—to try this system out over a year or so and see how many end up getting hacked. If no one does, then this might well be one of the best methods around for transferring secure data.

Still, this is very early-stage stuff. It will likely be a while before this technology gets into any kind of wide use, and as such, we could see quite a few changes before it actually comes out into public hands. If it works the way it might, though, Visa—and Lisnr—could have a real game-changer in play here.