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Readers of some French magazines were greeted late last year with an unusual invitation in an advertisement for the Audi Q7.
They were asked to point the cameras in their mobile phones at a special code in the advertisements. That would connect them automatically to a website that streamed video of the vehicle in action. It only worked, though, if they first downloaded an extra piece of software to their handsets.
That is a big “if”. The potential for turning mobile phones into devices capable of “reading” information in the physical world and connecting it back to the internet has been a dream of the mobile communications industry for years. Like many of the other visions of how the “mobile internet” would take shape, however, it has yielded far less than the optimists had hoped.
To judge by the Audi experiments, and others, a more concerted effort is under way to get this technology into the hands of a bigger audience. If it succeeds, it could turn out to be the first successful manifestation of advertising in the mobile data world.
For now, such ads have limited appeal, as even the technology companies be-hind them concede. Christian Steinborn, European head of NeoMedia, the US technology group involved in the Audi experiment, says few mobile phone users will bother to download the software needed to read so-called “2D barcodes”, which are versions of the more familiar Universal Product Codes capable of being “read” more easily by a camera phone.
That has not stopped other advertisers, consumer product companies and publishers rushing to experiment with the technology. Prompting this latest burst of interest have been the first signs from Japan and South Korea of widespread consumer interest in the technology, according to technology and marketing professionals.
For instance, News of the World a UK Sunday newspaper owned by News Corp, is considering printing 2D barcodes with its sports reports so that readers can link to highlights of football games.
The codes could also soon appear on consumer products after a decision last month by DuPont, which supplies bottles, cans and other types of packaging, to start offering to print the codes for its customers.
The potential of 2D barcodes extends well beyond their uses in marketing and the offline media industry.
“Navigating the web on a phone is a nightmare,” says Jonathan Bulkeley, head of Scanbuy, another specialist technology company. By making it possible for mobile users to connect to a web page with a simple “point and click” of their phones, barcodes could take the pain out of mobile surfing, he says.
That, in turn, could create a new layer of linkages between the physical and electronic worlds, says Chas Fritz, head of NeoMedia. Imagine if a unique barcode were printed on every physical object: you could point your camera phone and find out everything you wanted to know about it.
Such uses might eventually turn 2D barcodes into the hyperlinks of the physical world, as common and easy to navigate as the links that let users follow links easily around the internet.
That hope was the impetus behind the Mobile Codes Consortium, an initiative just launched by Hewlett-Packard, Publicis, the marketing services company, and NeoMedia to push for greater technology standardisation in this area.
While publishers and marketers are starting their own experiments with the use of 2D barcodes, widespread adoption is likely to depend on organisations that have the power to put the technology into millions of consumers’ hands: mobile network operators and handset makers. DoCoMo’s support of the idea was central to its adoption in Japan, according to technology executives. And Nokia has started to pre-load software capable of reading 2D barcodes in some handsets.
Eventually, mobile operators could come to see barcode-driven advertising as a significant source of revenue, Mr Bulkeley says. A former head of AOL in the UK, he compares the mobile companies to the early internet service providers, with their total reliance on monthly subscription income. Eventually, with the emergence of advertising, the subscription business died away.
If that comparison holds, the mobile industry will have incentives to promote mobile barcodes, potentially putting the technology into the hands of anyone with a camera phone.