Sunday, December 12, 2004

Barcoding The Planet

It's coming. Nice to see people getting it.

From Netimperative. Barcoding the planet.

ANALYSIS: Software which turns mobile phones into barcode readers has the potential to change not just the mobile industry but the way we shop and consume information, writes Russell Buckley
The winner of Ericsson's 2004 Best Mobile Enterprise Application this week, was Lavasphere by Germany's Gavitec AG. Lavasphere is a mobile ticketing and barcode reader application, which essentially turns a camera phone into a bar code reader.

You simply take a photograph of a bar code and your phone interprets for you the information contained in the bar code itself.

The potential applications could be myriad. For instance, you could scan the badges of exhibition attendees or validate people's tickets at a football match.

But the ordinary user can also do things like scan barcodes for information, price and product comparison or look at geo-specific data - information relating to the physical area that they are in.

It's this latter area where potentially the most exciting applications are and the ones that could even change our lives in a fundamental way.

The World Wide Web, that we take so much for granted these days, is based primarily on our ability to link bits of information to each other by the creation and use of hypertexting. Users click on a hyperlink to see information on another part of the web and are quickly taken there.

While there are plenty of bells and whistles overlaying hypertexting that enhance the web user's experience, they would be nothing without this core concept. Hypertexting is the rock on which the web is built and which won Sir Tim Burners-Lee his fame as the web's inventor.

Until now, hypertexting has remained in the online, virtual world. But Lavasphere's invention has the potential to turn bar codes into the real world equivalent of a hyperlink. Click on a bar code and you'll be rewarded with the online information relating to it, delivered virtually, on your phone.

Theres a better description for them.

I call them physical world hyperlinks.

Let's look at how that might actually work. As you're passing a shop, you take a photo on your phone of a small, discrete bar code displayed in the window. This is translated into a message delivered on your phone. The shop has special deals on jackets inside, if you present your phone as a virtual coupon.

You go inside the shop, find a jacket you like and scan the bar code printed on the jacket's label. This shows you that they have other colours available in a shop nearby, but that they do have it in your size in blue here. It might even suggest trousers that would go very nicely with the jacket, if you decide to purchase it.

Wearing your new jacket, you scan an advertising poster for a new snack product. The barcode also gives you a money-off coupon to try it, but also tells you the nearest place you can buy it from.

But this form of hypertexting isn't just for blatant commercial uses. It can enhance the whole environment. We wrote recently about the Yellow Arrow project in New York, where people can text the number they find on a Yellow Arrow to get information about the area or object the Yellow Arrow is stuck on. A variation is Art Mobs, announced this week, where visitors to an art gallery can leave virtual comments about pieces they see via SMS. Subsequent visitors can view the last five comments, by SMS too.

In reality, while these experiments might point the way to the future, they are a little clumsy to use and anyway, we can't go round polluting the environment with big yellow arrows everywhere.

It wont be big yellows arrows, it will be small 2d codes or words that can be read by a OCR.

But if we think in terms of bar codes instead of Yellow Arrows, this could deliver a vision on an information-rich environment available to all on the click of a camera button.

There are already billions of bar codes in circulation, all containing information. New ones can be created that can be discretely affixed to, or printed on practically anything. This would allow you to hypertext your way around the virtual world, greatly enhancing the physical world in which we all live.

And after bar codes, RFID (Radio Frequency Identification tags), with their ability to store far more and richer data may well become the hyperlinks of the future.

There's no doubt that the real and virtual worlds are moving together. But the ability to hyperlink in this way will create a seamless environment where we can enjoy the best each world has to offer.

I have some thoughts on this and what companies/industries will be disrupted.

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