Israeli startup Pronto.ly is working on a universal alternative to NFC that relies on high pitched soundwaves to perform a contactless handshake.
Now NFC has its fans (and fanboys) — but it also has major detractors. Apple for one has so far continued to eschew adding the contactless transfer tech into its mobile devices.
But the fact you need a dedicated chip at all to fire this contactless medium up is arguably the problem. NFC’s requirement of needing a large enough user-base to make the tech useful has generally hampered adoption of both chips and NFC-enabled services, such as contactless payments, since there’s no critical mass of users to generate significant momentum.
Which is where Pronto.ly’s alternative aims to step in. The startup is building a technology based on using ultrasound as the contactless layer. It thus only requires devices to have a microphone and speakers to make use of the tech. In other words: no NFC chip required.
The system does not send the actual data a user wants to transfer via this sonic medium, but uses ultrasound to identify and authenticate a transfer device (or devices) so that a verified exchange can then take place in the cloud.
“The Prontoly solution leverages preexisting device hardware, namely standard microphone and speaker. With that we employ a timebase onetime password (TOTP) handshake between devices on the client level which is then correlated via our authentication server,” explains co-founder and CEO Nick Pappo.
“These TOTPs are the only thing exchanged over the ultrasonic sound wavelength (encrypted of course), no identifying or transaction data is ever transmitted via this medium. Once we have authenticated a transaction request between devices we push to clearance via the application selected processor.”
Pronto.ly has filed patents around filtering its ultrasound signal pattern out of background noise so it can function in noisy environments. Having a unique ultrasound pattern as its signal also means it can avoid potential clashes with — or interference from — other radio technologies, says Pappo. And even other ultrasound techs (which are, in any case, not yet in common use in the consumer electronics tech space).
That said, Pronto.ly is not the only company looking at this technology. At Google I/O earlier this summer Mountain View revealed it’s working on an ultrasound ID tech for its Chromecast device — which will allow multiple mobile users to sling stuff to the same TV screen via Chromecast without having to log onto a Wi-Fi network.
That’s a neat looking use-case for sure, but Google is — currently at least — focused on one device and one use-case (logins). Whereas Pronto.ly’s system aims to be cross platform and device agnostic — so will be able to work with Android, iOS, Windows… whatever, assuming the device in question has a microphone and speaker.
It’s also targeting multiple applications for the tech — aiming to support whatever implementations and use-cases its b2b customers want to use its contactless identification/authentication layer for. Pronto.ly offers access to its tech via an SDK.
“Comparing what we have and (what we know about) Google latest announcements regarding Ultrasonic, they are concentrating on Login. For us Login is just another use case of many: Payment, Point of Sale, Smart TV, Access points. In each one of those and others, we have on going activities,” says Pappo.
Another advantage (vs NFC) is that ultrasound also doesn’t require proximity to function. The Pronto.ly tech can be tuned to work only in close proximity, but can also function over longer ranges. “One example of a technical challenge we overcame was the issue of proximity tuning,” adds Pappo. “We have some customers who require 20cm range and some with 5m range.”
Plus, unlike NFC, it can be used to broadcast a signal to multiple devices — as in a Chromecast-esque smart TV scenario.
Pappo says he has been working on developing the technology since 2012, founding the company itself back in April 2013 — helped by the proceeds from a prior startup exit.
Pronto.ly itself has raised some $600,000 so far, in pre-seed and seed funding, with investment coming from angels including Jeff Pulver, and seed funding from the hiCenter incubator and the Chief Scientist of Israel.
The startup in the process of raising a Series A, with the aim of closing the round by the end of the year, according to Pappo.
At present, Pronto.ly has multiple customers trialling the technology for different use-cases. While it’s not naming these customers yet, it says they include an Israeli bank wanting to use it for a contactless ATM for cash withdrawals; an Israeli card issuer aiming to use it for SME P2P payments (similar to a mobile payment dongle but without any dongle being required); a European bank wanting to offer a contactless ecommerce checkout process; and a wireless charging company wanting to do subscriber authentication using ultrasound.
Pappo adds that he expects the first in the wild deployment of the tech “within weeks”, via a device maker. Other deployments should surface in the wild in Q3 and Q4 this year, he adds.
In terms of business model, Pronto.ly is targeting payment scenarios for b2b monetization — working with large banks and the like — and aiming to take a flat fee per payment transaction processed via its tech.
“We will work with financial institutes and credit card issuers, working on really customized use-cases with them,” says Pappo. “We want to have at least ten big financial customers like that in one year.”
It also intends to monetize its SDK via a freemium model, so that developers can integrate it for free but have to start paying per user, after a certain usage threshold is reached.