The CueCat — that pesky bar-code scanner from Digital Convergence — may be dead, but its spirit is finding new life in the form of a camera phone.
During the past six months, no fewer than four software firms have released applications to help consumers turn their camera-equipped mobile phones into personal bar-code scanners.
Like the CueCat, the applications automatically trigger the download of coupons, reviews and other information about a given product whenever a user takes a photo of its bar code.
But whereas the CueCat needed to be plugged into a computer, shoppers can use the new services wherever they can take their camera-equipped mobile phone, and no special hardware is required — features that proponents say will help make these systems far more successful than their much-mocked predecessor.
Although the technologies are still in their early stages, the trend is rekindling talk of a shopping revolution.
“Clearly, this is going to change the way people think about shopping,” said Olivier Attia, chief executive of New York-based Scanbuy, one of the firms specializing in bar-code-scanning software.
For example, “with a camera phone that is also a bar-code scanner, you can go into a store like Barnes & Noble, take a photo of the ISBN number on a book and instantly receive a coupon offering the book for 30 percent less at Amazon.com,” said Attia.
Introduced three years ago in Japan and less than a year ago in the United States, camera phones are well on their way to becoming the most popular consumer device in history. According to research firm IDC, more than 80 million have been sold worldwide.
Although most camera phones already contain their own Web browser that owners can use to manually look up product websites, Attia and others believe the bar-code system is likely to be more popular because it is easier to use.
“Right now, when people are shopping, no one is going to use their (phone’s Web browser) to type in ‘www.google.com’ to search for product information,” said Attia. “It’s not practical.”
Macromedia software engineer Sean Neville, who recently developed his own camera-phone scanner software for personal use, agreed that the systems are a lot more powerful than standard Web browsers.
“It’s a real eye-opener,” he said in a phone interview. With the camera-phone scanner, “you can aggregate a lot of different information from different sources just by scanning something. You can do that on your own or at a desktop computer, but then you have to look up a bunch of sources and go looking for all the individual sites and so on.”
According to Attia, Scanbuy is already in “very advanced” talks with two American wireless service providers to offer similar services to their customers within six to nine months.
The company also announced earlier in the month that it is working with Ericsson to produce camera phones that come pre-installed with Scanbuy’s bar-code-scanning software, called ScanZoom.
Scanbuy’s competitors are not far behind. Japan’s M-Ken and Mediastick have announced services that work with various phones on the NTT DoCoMo network. And Florida’s NeoMedia Technologies is testing software on the Nokia 3650 and 3660 series phones.
Whether retailers will be threatened by the camera-phone scanners remains to be seen.
According to Macromedia’s Neville, smart retailers will see the system as an opportunity to reach customers. “They could use the services to push out recommendations based on what users have scanned,” suggested Neville.
As for the not-so-smart retailers: “They may begin to put up signs on the door that say, ‘No smoking, no pets and no camera phones allowed inside,'” jokes Attia.