When you think of a public information kiosk, your mental picture might include greasy touch screens, broken trackballs and frozen monitors.
But researchers at an Intel-financed lab at Cambridge University have developed a way to replace displays like those with something portable, not to mention personal: a cellphone’s built-in camera and screen. They and others plan to use commercially available hardware to turn the camera-equipped cellphone into a mouse, remote control, keyboard and more.
“Instead of having all the hassle of putting things out in the environment that you have to maintain and that people can vandalize, you get a cheap PC, shove it in the back room of your shop and just put posters out front,” said Richard Sharp, an Intel researcher here.
On these posters are symbols the researchers call SpotCodes: concentric rings of black-and-white blocks representing ones and zeros. Focusing your camera phone on the code and then clicking any button launches a wireless service – for example, the ability to buy a train ticket, check an airplane’s departure time or download a ring tone from a store display.
The codes can be produced on any inkjet printer and can be read even by phones with low-resolution cameras.
SpotCode is not alone in this new field. Many other companies are introducing tools and formats that use the camera phone (and camera-equipped palmtop) to bridge the gap between real and virtual.
The potential applications are many. The SpotCode team, for example, has a prototype service that simulates an airport experience. Pointing and clicking on an overhead plasma screen will display flight information; if you wish, details are stored in your phone, activating a text message reminder that is sent just before boarding time.
Part of their motivation, though, was to take better advantage of underused public displays. “A lot of the info is static, so there’s no point in putting it on a plasma screen,” Mr. Sharp said. His team has been investigating ways of using big screens like these to display images too large for a cellphone’s tiny screen – for example, a detailed map to a traveler’s departure gate – while reserving the phone’s display for personalized information.
“So instead of having a little display and keypad, what you’ve basically got is a big bank of buttons all laid out in front of you on the plasma screen,” Mr. Sharp said.
Unlike touch screens, which require users to stand within arm’s length, a camera phone can be used to control a display from a distance. “These are the endpoints of your virtual cables,” Mr. Sharp said of the symbolic tags. “They’re the things that initiate the connection.”
Cellphones have long been able to do more than make calls and take pictures; you can use them to pay parking meters, make purchases from vending machines, project images against a wall, display your bicycling speed or even navigate an unfamiliar city.
But the desire to connect the paper and online worlds has only recently become practical, partly because of the rapid rise of camera-equipped cellphones. Tens of millions of camera phones are in use, and their sales worldwide (though not yet in the United States) exceed those of regular digital cameras, according to American Technology Research, an investment analysis firm.
Most of the new systems work on the same basic principle: software converts a camera phone’s built-in lens into a scanner, similar to a bar-code reader’s. When the lens is pointed at a recognizable symbol, the phone’s display becomes a real-time viewfinder. In the case of SpotCodes, for example, once the lens detects the symbol, red cross hairs appear. Clicking then initiates a given service, like loading a Web page or transmitting an e-mail address.
The clickable symbols can assume various forms, and can appear on almost any surface, including a poster, a printed page, a T-shirt or even a product itself. “It could be a box of Tide or a can of Coke,” said Chas Fritz, chairman of NeoMedia Technologies of Fort Myers, Fla., which has been developing such tags for nearly a decade. “That Coke can is now interactive.”
Though applications like these are only now appearing in the United States, they have become increasingly popular in Asia over the last two years. Examples in Japan include pointing your phone at printed maps to find the nearest automatic teller machine, getting extra information about animals at an aquarium or training your camera phone on a local marketplace’s produce to determine its origin and freshness.
Crucial to such projects has been the fact that major mobile operators in Asia like DoCoMo and Vodafone install the necessary scanning software on most new phones they distribute. A Vodafone spokesman, however, said no decisions had yet been made about outfitting European or American phones with similar capabilities.
“When the phone makers start building this software into their phones here, that’s when this will really take off,” said Anil Malhotra, vice president of Bango, a Cambridge-based company working on ways to commercialize SpotCodes.
Others in this new industry agreed. “Japan is a school case for us, showing that the technology is already working in a country where the technology is more advanced,” said Avi Outmezguine, co-founder of New York-based Scanbuy, another company embracing what he calls “scan commerce.”
Scanbuy and other scan-commerce entrepreneurs have launched a number of applications in North America. NeoMedia markets a product that lets clean-up workers click with a camera phone on a chemical drum’s tag to learn more about what has been spilled. And enthusiasts are using a technology from an Ontario-based company, Semacode, for updates on bus arrivals. Volunteers have been placing the Semacode markers at bus stops in several American cities. When pointed at the code, a camera phone can connect to bus tracking data from a company called NextBus.com.
Unsurprisingly, many of the proposed applications revolve around shopping – for example, letting potential buyers call up information on a DVD player’s technical specifications or check the number in stock.
But how about taking advantage of standardized I.S.B.N. codes to lend a physical storefront to a virtual store? “You can walk into Barnes & Noble, click on a book using our software, and it’ll link you directly to the Amazon price,” said Mr. Fritz of NeoMedia.
Last year NeoMedia produced a version of this application to demonstrate the technology’s possibilities to telecom executives, and Mr. Fritz said he hoped a consumer version would be available within six months.
Scanbuy also has a similar application in the works (a test version of which can be downloaded from Scanzoom.com). “What our technology can do for Amazon is to give them a physical presence without paying much lease,” Mr. Outmezguine said.
Amazon’s director of platform and technology communications, Craig Berman, said he could not comment on services like these without seeing them in action, but added that Amazon makes much of its vast database available to developers in order to encourage innovation.
While brick-and-mortar stores might feel shortchanged, so much pointing and clicking inevitably generates extra traffic for phone operators. A South Korean provider, KTF, recently started a service that gives camera-phone users premium information when they point their phones at the bar code of any of over 400,000 products like books and CD’s, for a few cents per lookup.
But these are still early days for scan commerce, and as such it’s too early to predict where any big money might be made and by whom. Which explains, in part, why a chipmaker like Intel would be involved in this kind of research.
“We’re still trying to understand what it’s useful for,” said Derek McAuley, the director of research for the Intel lab here. “As technologists, we just generate all these options, and then the business folk figure out what to do with it.”
(Originally published in The New York Times in October 2004)