Barcodes are ready to hit the streets.


As far as the identification of products is concerned, the bar code has had its day. The mobile gives the code a new lease of life.


By Herbert Blankensteijn. NRC, 10 May 2005


Five years ago the free newspaper “” did something new. At the end of each article there was a barcode. At home the readers could, with a “reader” and dedicated software, scan in these codes, after which the PC, via the Internet, brought them extra information. However, the use of the system was too cumbersome and was not a hit.


Now, the barcode gets a new chance outside of retail applications. In a new incarnation – round or square, but in any case two dimensional – and with a new type of scanner: the mobile telephone. Almost every new mobile phone is equipped with a camera that is used primarily for taking spontaneous snaps. This telephone-plus now offers unforeseen possibilities. It is an appliance that can read a bar-code, distil digital information by itself, and can send this information directly. This enables the barcode to hit the streets, where the mobile phones are.


Computer manufacturer Hewlett-Packard in its research laboratories in Bristol is experimenting with square “block”-codes, named QR-codes, that for instance can be printed on posters. HP calls this project: “Active Posters”. To read the codes the mobile phone needs to be equipped with dedicated software that is distributed via an HP Labs site in a trial version. You aim your camera at a block-code until the camera tells you that the target is in the frame and then you click. “What happens then, depends, “clarifies Tim Kindberg. He is a researcher with HP labs in the area of ubiquitous computing. “It might be that a website appears on your screen, you might be able to order a cinema ticket in this way or you might be informed when the bus arrives (departs).”


Kindberg is still in the stages of initial research. “The first impression is that people find it cool. Normally they cannot be bothered to type in web addresses (on their phone) or send a sms, but this is a way (of interacting) that people warm to.”


It is like “clicking on a link” when surfing the web. The software is not suited for all phones. They have to be “Serie 60” phones with the Symbian operating system. These are mainly Nokia phones.


“At a recent film festival in Bristol, HP distributed posters with QR codes. In one case a click meant that you took part in a competition where you could win a camera. In another case the code started to download a short movie that was part of the festival. Yet another code downloaded wallpaper for your mobile phone.


Currently QR-codes are used in Japan for commercial purposes. Business people have them for example on their business cards. In The Netherlands too such technology is being adopted. Both Heineken as well as the N-Joy festival (10-13 June in Biddinghuizen) organise a mystery tour where you look for “shotcodes” that can be snapped with a camera phone. Who ever finds the right codes and “clicks” on them via their mobile camera phones has a chance to win a price.


In contrast to the QR-codes the shotcodes that used here are round. Shotcodes contain 48 bits, which comes down to six characters. Not enough for an internet address, but enough to “send the phone” to a particular router on the internet, that couples the code to the required address. According to Dennis Hettema of the OP3 company, that provided the technology for Dutch projects, this is an advantage: “We are able to change the webaddress in the router afterwards without distributing new codes.” This doesn’t prevent Tim Kindberg of HP to think that his version is a bit neater, they do contain the actual web-address, with a maximum of 7000 characters. A router is not needed in this case: “In addition we have space for extra informative text that appears on the mobile’s screen when the code is activated.”


While real applications start to come off the ground, Kindberg is in the process of preparing research into the possibilities of (where to place) the two dimensional codes. They should not be too high or too low, because then people get problems with aiming. “It is a new medium that we want to explore properly. Is it effective on posters? Leaflets? Bus timetables? Will you be able to deliver location dependent information?”