The WaSP Buzz’ article on a new mobile web browser test made mention of phones that can read QR Codes—one of several types of 2-D bar codes that you see on things like shipping labels. In this case, the idea is that you can point your phone’s camera at the QR code and it’ll decode it and send you to the appropriate URL.

My first thought was that this was just like the CueCat, which was a bar code scanner that you could plug into your computer’s USB port, then scan bar codes in magazines, or on cans of soda, or whatever, and it would tell your computer to bring up relevant information. It was marketed in the late 1990s, during the tech boom… and it was a total flop. No one wanted them. The company went under and had millions of the little scanners sitting around unsold.

But now there are multiple schemes in use for object hyperlinking. In addition to graphical codes, there are RFID tags, GPS coordinates, and short text codes that you can easily type into an SMS message or a web portal.

So why is this sort of thing working now, 10 years later? Is it a societal change? Was the CueCat ahead of its time?

I think there are two reasons:

  • CueCat was a single-purpose device. All the applications listed involve smartphones or other multi-purpose handheld devices. No one wanted a device that would only scan bar codes, but a phone/camera/browser/MP3 Player/bicycle that also scans bar codes? Sure, why not?
  • CueCat was tied to the desktop. Sure, you could plug it into a laptop computer, but you’d still have to take the object over to your computer to scan the bar code. Unless you’re a lousy typist, swiping the CueCat across your can of Coke isn’t that much easier than typing in As a home user, you’re not likely to be scanning a dozen objects in a row (unless you’re cataloging all of your books for LibraryThing).

All the applications listed on that page are mobile. A tagging scheme does give you an advantage when you’re out walking down the street and see something interesting. It’s much easier to punch in a short number than to try to type a URL on most phones, easier still to point your camera at a graphic, and dead simple to pick up an RFID tag or pull in GPS coordinates.

3 thoughts on “Linking the Real and the Virtual

  1. I have followed the mobile code reading space over the years with great interest and intrigue. In particular, a company by the name of NeoMedia Technologies.

    During Web 1.0, a company by the name of Digital Convergence licensed the patents of NeoMedia Technologies to facilitate the launch of the “CueCat.

    The :CueCat was a revolutionary product launched back in 2000 that came way before its time. It had tremendous disruptive potential from a technology standpoint, but the drawback with the :CueCat was that it was a “tethered” device — meaning the user could only scan barcodes while seated in front of their personal computer. The customer had no mobility and could not take the device with them.

    Flash forward to today, mobile barcode reading is an everyday part of the popular culture in Japan and Korea. The technology is just now beginning to emerge in Europe with North America not too far behind.

    NeoMedia and it’s wholly owned subsidiary Gavitec are both active members of the Mobile Codes Consortium with technology leader HP, marketing powerhouse and advertising agency Publicis Groupe, cell phone manufacturer Nokia, QUALCOMM, along with wireless carriers O2, Deutsche Telekom (T-Mobile), and KPN.

    Last December, the Mobile Codes Consortium created initiatives that led to activities within the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA) and the GSM Association (GSMA) to accelerate mass mobile marketing using mobile codes.

    NeoMedia also recently launched the NeoReader, which features NeoMedia’s patented resolution technology combined with Gavitec’s ultra-small footprint and platform independent algorithms. It is able to read and decipher all common non-proprietary 2D codes (Data Matrix, QR, Aztec) as well as URL embedded 2D codes and all 1D UPC/EAN/Code 128 open source codes. The NeoReader supports direct and indirect code linking, which guarantees maximum interoperability with already existing platforms like 2D Data Matrix Semacodes, and Japanese QR links. This allows the user to click on a variety of codes with a single application installed on their mobile device.

    NeoMedia Technologies has a suite of twelve issued patents dating back to 1995 covering the core concepts behind linking the physical world to the electronic world through 1D UPC/EAN and 2D barcodes.

    These patents have been licensed by Digital Convergence, Symbol/Motorola, and Virgin Entertainment.

  2. I think I’d feel better about such a detailed comment if it wasn’t clear that it had been copied and pasted from somewhere else.

    Well, at least you’re on topic.

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