Active Print

The Active Print project is exploring how printed materials and digital displays can be linked to online content, services and applications in all kinds of urban/suburban/rural situations. In particular the concerns of the project lie in how this can be done using the mobile phone – the device that many people carry with them everywhere. Current camera phones now have good enough optics, resolution and processing power to be able to read special "barcode”-like symbols known as "codes" on the printed materials. These symbols encode information such as URLs, phone numbers and various pieces of meta information. When read and decoded by a camera phone, they can initiate several ways of linking the user to content and services, in particular:

  • By initiating a Web (WAP or HTTP) download
  • By automatically sending an SMS message to a service
  • By dialling a number to make a call
  • By consuming data such as contact information directly from the code

In principle, any printed surface can be seen as an access point to a whole range of off-portal mobile content and services. Posters, newspapers, books, magazines, flyers, tickets, stickers and CDs can all incorporate these codes into their design. Likewise the codes can be read from certain digital displays such as LCD or plasma screens commonly used in public space advertising and more and more in the home. These too, can be access points for off-portal mobile content and offer some interesting variants of possibilities over their printed counterparts. By thinking of these codes as a form of hyperlink, it is possible to envision a wide range of applications which include:

  • download ringtones, samples of music, wallpapers or video
  • buy tickets to an advertised show
  • order a taxi
  • get a discount voucher
  • sign up to a text alert service
  • enter a competition

Each copy of an active poster or magazine can have its own unique code. This allows linked content to be specific to that instance of a poster or magazine. This opens up possibilities for more targeted content according to specific location of a poster, or regional destination of a specific magazine batches, or to particular individuals. For example, if a taxi service advertising poster was positioned in a particular venue, clicking on the poster would reveal the location of the user to the taxi service.


Active Print provides two key pieces of technology: Glass, an application for reading codes on a mobile phone, and Codestation, software available to our partners for managing the potentially many codes that a given advertiser would use. Codestation links each code to specific content and services. This site has a simple code-generating facility.

While several types of machine-readable codes are now in existence, the Active Print project focuses on two key types of industry standard codes, namely QR codes and datamatrix codes.



Such codes offer certain advantages over codes of other patterns or "symbologies":

  • Their data capacity means they are highly scalable to trillions of unique printed artefacts
  • They offer a robust reading experience for the user
  • They have sufficient capacity to encode a service address such as a URL directly, as well as further information that can enhance the interaction experience.

  Active Print on digital displays

The Active Print paradigm applies to display technologies such as LCD and plasma that do not produce a "scan line" when a camera images them. Click for some examples.

  Project Aims

While examples of these technologies have been round in various guises for several years, there has been little attempt to understand the adoption and use of such technology in real-world contexts. The project aims to explore a range of different issues pertaining to the Active Print ecosystem, in terms of the design and distribution of Active Print content, the everyday use and value of Active Print to consumers, and the underlying commercial value. With this in mind the project will focus on 3 key areas

  • Design Case Studies will unpack aesthetic and pragmatic concerns relating to the creation and distribution of active print content. For example, how codes can be incorporated into printed materials, and how to balance graphical concerns of code size and positioning with ergonomic constraints on size and positioning.
  • End User Studies, (observations, interviews, questionnaires and use logs) will explore the social, b ehavioural and physical factors that affect the use of such technology and the value of particular applications. How do users manage the interaction with these different printed materials in different types of public spaces as they go about their everyday lives?
  • Business models will also be explored with the various partners and content providers to understand the different ways in which they can reap commercial benefits from this new way of engaging users.


To explore these 3 areas, a real-world trial of the technology is taking place this summer. Several partner organisations will incorporate the Active Print codes into their printed merchandise and promotional materials for distribution around the UK, where they can be experienced by real users with the appropriate camera phones.