The Revenge of the CueCat

Longtime digerati must be smiling already at the mere mention of the infamous CueCat. For those of you new to the island, the CueCat was a handheld personal scanning device that was supposed to "inter-activate" print. By reading codes in ads, editorials and flyers, it would pop up corresponding Web pages online. This was supposed to spare us the inconvenience of typing in lengthy URLs and bridge the world of physical and virtual worlds for publishers and marketers.

The laughter commenced as soon as we saw the thing. It was a stylized cat, with the scanner at its mouth and the CueCat trademark as a kind of lower back tattoo on its butt. It's not everyday that you get computer peripherals giving you a come-hither look. Even if the device itself didn't look like a sex toy with potentially painful functionality, the CueCat was DOA for multiple reasons. First, it was tethered to the PC by a cable, which pretty much required that you bring the magazine to your desk. Second, only a handful of titles committed to the program. Third, it required putting these butt-ugly visual codes into otherwise lush print ads. And finally, well, it LOOKED LIKE A FRICKIN VIBRATOR! The wife brings one of these things home to link up the PC, and hubby is going to be feeling digitally disintermediated in a big way.

Like many dot-com debacles, the CueCat had the seed of a good idea that Web enthusiasm irradiated into something mutant and stupid. Using a handheld device to connect physical and digital worlds is a notion that should not die, and mobile phones are the most sensible platform for it.

One U.K. firm, World Forum Research, is stoking the old embers in a new report. With the success of using mobile phones as code readers in Japan and Korea, the company predicts that 70% of U.S. and European consumers will use 2D codes to activate content on their phones by 2009. These mobile "hyperlinks" will use a visual code, an audio cue or even some sort of touch or proximity signal to pull down to the phone some piece of content or WAP link. This is pretty much the CueCat revived, miniaturized and de-sexed. In the ideal world, which will come someday, you aim the phone cam at a movie poster and get times and reviews. You swipe your phone across a print ad and a coupon shows up on the handset.

At some point this is going to happen, I have no doubt. But 70% of us using it by 2009? Please put some of what they are smoking in my pipe, because it must beat my everyday brand of hallucinogen.

As WFR points out, there are successful trials of the necessary enabling technologies in the U.S., and some systems are already in place in the Asian markets. The potential here is so monstrous that companies and solutions are just pouring in. That alone is why 2009 seems like an awfully premature target date. I fear the competition and shakeout phase on this one could be huge. And let's not forget the lessons of the pornographic CueCat.

First, any hyperlink technology needs to combine ubiquity with convenience. As with the CueCat, only early adopters and techno-masochists want to go through multiple steps to get to their content and marketing on a device. The Cat was a pain to use, and it tethered you to a PC. Some early iterations of hyperlinking I have used are kludgy in their own way. If I have to email a captured image to a specific new address in order to get content or coupons in return, you have lost me. If I have to record an audio cue and send that file somewhere else, you lost me. Either the code or cue needs to be smart enough to know where and how it goes to the content provider, or the phone has to be smart enough to know how to handle specific types of input.

Which bring me to the next point -- an obvious one about standardization. These systems will work well and get adopted when they are baked into the hardware and consumers don't have to think about whether their carrier or handset supports it. So few magazines actually ran CueCat-enabled material that the codes were invisible to me when they did show up. And specialized devices for marketing ploys just don't work. At some point the famously heterogeneous mobile handset and network technologies have got to get serious about incorporating some video/audio/proximity recognition system that can be embedded on enough handsets to achieve necessary scale and ritualized use. This is a job for the Mobile Marketing Association.

Even if the inconvenience and sparse utility of the CueCat didn't kill it first, the lack of a payoff would. We went through all of that bother just to get to a Web page? Like the device itself, the front end of the CueCat experience was as laughable as the back end. Mobile has a distinct advantage in this regard. Simply giving users a hyperlink is itself a welcome shortcut. If you put that shortcut everywhere (on posters, magazine pages, catalogs, Web pages, CDs, etc.) then you create a mobile content and marketing system that truly clicks on the physical world to make it as interactive and deep as a Web site.

And then even leering cynics, myself included, will stop chuckling at the inanity of the CueCat and start calling it a precursor (albeit misguided and unwittingly erotic) to a platform that really did change marketing forever.

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