Code Scanning Goes To School

At Case Western Reserve University this semester students should be seeing more and more of those geeky-looking 2D mobile codes around campus, in the school newspaper, perhaps even on pamphlets from other students. Run by Mobile Discovery with the cooperation of Case's Master of Engineering and Management program, this purports to be the first cross-carrier mobile 2D trial in the U.S.

Interest in 2D mobile codes is very high throughout the value chain, but it is unclear which technology, which code standard, and what technology model will prevail in the U.S. Another trial of 2D Codes is being conducted by ScanBuy in the San Francisco area, specifically targeting restaurant reviews and audio walking tours with its own code and application.

In both cases the user must download a program to the phone, which in turn uses the phone's camera as a code scanner. Ideally, a user should take a quick snap of a code wherever it resides, and the phone will send the unique image out to a provider like Mobile Discovery, which then delivers back to the phone the promised media. The dream at the heart of this technology is to turn the physical world into a fully interactive one. Any object becomes an occasion for delivering more content. The problem will be getting there.



David Miller, CEO of Mobile Discovery, is already going to code school at Case Western in these trials. The critical lessons are that this technology will hang on ubiquity, standards, education, and value. "It is important to drive deep penetration in a closed community," for these trials, says Miller. "No one wants to download software to scan a code once. They want multiple things to scan to make 2D codes a part of their lifestyle." Within the closed and compressed setting of the campus at Case, the codes can seem to be everywhere, on bus stops, posters, etc.

The interesting thing about the Case Western test is that it puts the codes both into the hands of commercial partners like Gannett or QVC as well as ordinary students. Anyone can create a unique scan code online to reuse on posters, handouts or in the school newspaper. The user can upload content to the system that will be associated with the graphic code and sent to the phones in response to a request. This user-generated element helps accelerate the appearance of the codes and may be more likely than an ad to prompt a student to download and use the software.

The carriers are observing the test, says Miller, because they want to see a working model where advertisers are involved and they get feedback from all parts of the value chain. Let's hope that one of the things they hear from this test is the need for more and better flat pricing of data. Wireless customers are price-sensitive, and they recognize that any non-voice use of their phone is going to cost them in ways they may not foresee.

"We learned that not only are consumers confused but they are apprehensive," says Miller. "It is like a black box. They don't know what they will get. They don't know what will appear on their bill." This consumer reticence makes it all the more important that the publisher offer real value. There is a calculus going on in consumers' minds over whether the cost, in time, bother or just money, is outweighed by the benefit.

Nevertheless, Miller reports a great deal of interest in this program among students and staff at Case. Of course, this is a tech-oriented school of uber-early adopters, so there is built-in curiosity. Still, I would be very interested in seeing how much the user-generated piece of this project gets used, propels use, and piques interest. Clearly we are a couple of years away from seeing ubiquitous 2D codes in the U.S. Two incredibly difficult things have to happen. First, we need to settle on a code standard among the many companies cropping up in the space. There is nothing more chilling than the prospect of consumers having to determine which 2D code vendor is associated with this movie poster or that print ad. No one is going to download multiple reader software. In fact, I would argue that unless and until we see this baked into hardware, it will remain a curio for, well, the curious. This has to be at least as seamless and familiar as starting your phone cam, pointing it at a scan code and having the camera know what to do from there. Which leads us to the next high hurdle, cross-carrier agreement on a standard they all can bake into phones and operating systems.

If we really want the clickable world, where phones can easily activate any physical object, then we need the world to behave like HTML code.

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