What's Black, White & Scanned All Over? Quick Response Codes for Camera Phones | Page 2

It could also work in conjunction with 2D barcodes, says Larry Loper, Ecrio's vice president of marketing. The consumer scans a 2D barcode, goes to the company's Web site, decides he likes the product and downloads the barcode-based coupon to get a Web discount - or free sample.

"Our problem with the existing use of 2D barcodes is that it doesn't close the loop on redemption," Loper says. "It doesn't allow you to get a receipt or a coupon. But we always see the two technologies as something that can partner together."

Ecrio, a 3G applications developer, would ultimately like to see cell phones with the ability to emit barcodes. Some already have the basic technology onboard with IR or other kinds of emitters, such as the LEDs on BlackBerries. The problem is getting access to the hardware layer to control the emitters with software.

The company has produced prototypes with a few devices, but until the cell phone makers see a strong demand for this - most likely from advertisers and/or retailers - they likely won't go out of their way to cooperate, Loper concedes.

In the meantime, the company has developed a thumb drive-size USB device inexpensive enough that retailers can give it away to consumers. It plugs into a computer to download coupon codes from Web sites and has an IR emitter for delivering coupons at point of sale.

Ecrio has trials underway in France, Australia - and with an as yet unnamed grocery chain in the U.S. southwest.

One dimensional barcodes, which actually are an array of bars, encode a relatively small amount of data, typically a string of numbers - not enough to contain a URL, for example. 2D barcodes were developed for applications requiring printable codes able to hold more data.

QR, developed originally for inventory applications, is one. The technology ScanBuy uses, EZcodes, developed at a Swiss university and licensed exclusively to ScanBuy, is another. It was developed specifically for marketing applications. A third contender is Data Matrix, developed by Acuity ciMatrix, which was acquired by Siemens in 2005.

2D codes all look somewhat similar: a square outline with a two-dimensional matrix of black and white shapes inside, similar to a very simple bit map. Indeed, QR codes can encode coarse-grained images.

Code-reading software on the mobile device integrates with the phone camera. Simply pointing the camera at a code with the software running will start the recognition process. It doesn't require the user to actually "take a picture" of the code. And it is very fast.

It's possible to develop software that can read any known 2D code. Indeed, ScanBuy's ScanLife software is code agnostic. It can also read QR and Data Matrix codes, although Bulkeley believes EZcode will ultimately dominate this space.

The codes can automatically trigger a range of actions on the mobile device: visit or bookmark the URL for a WAP or standard Web site; send a text or e-mail message; download content such as wallpaper, ringtones, games or video clips; save or update a person's contact information; send or save an appointment or date; place a phone call without dialing the number, and so on.

The most prevalent use in Japan has been automated Web browsing, usually advertising-related - navigation to a site using the mobile device's WAP browser - or automating a call to a contact center so the user can request more information or initiate a transaction.

But codes on bus shelters in Japan will take the user to a Web site with updated bus schedule information related specifically to that location. 'The 86 bus will arrive in 2.5 minutes.'

Developers such as Luna Development, a Toronto-based 3G specialist, are fermenting lots of other application ideas. Indeed, the possibilities seem limited only by the human imagination.

The trouble is, none is likely to succeed until a critical mass of users has code-reading software on their mobile devices. It's the old chicken and egg dilemma.

How will it be resolved? Check back for Part II of this series to find out.

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