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.

On seeing an ad for the upcoming Dukes of Hazzard movie, I started thinking of other 70s and early 80s TV shows that Hollywood might remake. Then I started thinking of late 80s and 90s shows. I’m certain that, 10-20 years from now, there will be a Beverly Hills 90210 movie.

But what about the big hits of this decade—the reality shows? Will Hollywood want to release Survivor or Fear Factor movies for 2025? Or would it be like producing a Jeopardy movie?

One of the big draws for shows like Survivor or American Idol is watching the contestants’ stories unfold over time. You can’t do that in a two-hour movie as effectively as you can over a 10–20–week season. On the other hand, not every reality show is about the long haul. Assuming the public’s taste doesn’t change, I’m sure Fear Factor could be made into a movie. (Though one could argue that it already has been.)

Later in my drive I heard a story on the radio about Iraqi reality TV. Apparently the genre has become quite popular there, particularly the helpful sub-genre (like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition). There’s a show that helps people navigate government bureaucracy, a show that rebuilds homes destroyed in the war, one that gives couples dream weddings, one that takes people to foreign hospitals for medical procedures, etc.

Who knew what else we’d be exporting?