Startup has a way to let your phone make crystal-clear calls

Cypher promises its voice isolating software will elevate call quality, whether you're a caller in a noisy restaurant or a soldier on the battlefield.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
3 min read

Cypher CEO John Walker, right, and Vice President John Yoon test out their company's noise-reduction technology. Steven Tregeagle, courtesy of Cypher

In the race to add more capabilities into a smartphone, often what gets neglected is the actual phone part.

With the speaker and microphone shrinking down and packed in with computer chips, cameras and sensors, voice quality hasn't improved at the pace of the rest of a smartphone. This predicament led Consumer Reports to declare in May that making phone calls on these devices "still sucks."

There are plenty of noise cancellation technologies out on the market, but a Salt Lake City-based startup, called Cypher, is hoping its approach will help take some of the annoyance out of day-to-day phone conversations.

Cypher, which plans to publicly launch as a company on Tuesday, has spent the past two years working on software that can isolate a person's voice. The company said this approach, which differs from the standard practice of eliminating or canceling out sound waves, can cut background noise by 99 percent, improving call quality regardless of whether a person is talking near a barking dog, crying baby or karaoke-singing bar patrons. This technology could also help digital assistants like Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana become better listeners, reducing the need to repeat commands.

"We engage in voice conversations in places that are less and less ideal as we become more and more mobile," said Cypher CEO John Walker, who is the former chief operating officer of computer storage company Fusion-io. "That's really where the opportunity for this has come up."

Common forms of noise elimination include phase cancellation, in which sound waves can cancel each other out, and beam-forming, which filters waves between two microphones.

While most sound techniques require special hardware, Cypher's technique is purely based on software that can be added to any smartphone. The software can hone in on human speech and ignore everything else. The company did this by creating pattern-recognition algorithms that can detect and lock onto the basic elements of human speech, regardless of gender or accents.

Cypher vice president John Yoon. Steven Tregeagle, courtesy of Cypher

The company is first focusing on the consumer market and is currently in talks with chipmakers, phone carriers and device makers, expecting to announce new customers in the coming months. It's also looking to raise more money, after starting with $2.5 million in seed funding.

In the future, Cypher sees the potential of using its technology in public safety, helping military personnel, firefighters and police officers remove the noise of a gunfight, crime scene or blazes to relay emergency messages more effectively to dispatchers.

In one case, Cypher executives were invited to a military installation to demonstrate the company's software by processing an audio file of human speech mixed with the sound of gunfire. The technology was so effective at removing the gunfire that the government personnel asked them to bring back some of the background noise, to provide some context of the situation to those away from a battle scene.

"We have the potential, in our own way, to contribute to saving lives -- not having to repeat a message, being able to get your message out," said John Yoon, Cypher's vice president of product design, who spent 10 years at General Electric working on public safety radios.