Pay Money, Scan Barcodes With Your Cellphone

ScanZoom, which allows camera phone users to scan barcodes to compare prices in stores and obtain other information and services, is now available. It will work with most camera phones, but there’s a catch: You have to pay $10 for the software, $10 for a special macro zoom lens, and another $5 or so to get it to you. A similar version if available for webcams.

I haven’t tried it out yet, but if I recall correctly a barcode reading pen was available a few years back — the C Pen, if I’m not mistaken, which turned out to be less of a success than its makers hoped for. The idea was for users to scan barcodes they found in magazines and then send the data to their computer, which would in turn, er, tell them about the product they’d just read about in the magazine. I might be getting this wrong, but a) I couldn’t find that many companies that had been loaded into the pen’s database for it to work and b) how many people are going to do this kind of thing for it to work?

ScanZoom could be different, in that the user doesn’t have to do that much. But clearly the need for a macro zoom lens on the camera phone is going to be an inhibitor (can you still use the phone with the lens on it?), as it the fact you’ve got to pay $20 to get started. Unless the service really does help you get good prices, rather than just throw more advertising at you and steer you to certain vendors, you might be wondering who the chump is.

Still, as infoSync World reported late last year, this kind of thing is common enough in Japan. And ScanBuy, the company behind ScanZoom, says it used the technology at a soccer game in Spain earlier this year to ID ticket holders. And they’re not shy in their claims: Their PR blurb says (PDF only)

Optical Intelligence enables camera equipped cell phones and other mobile devices with barcode-reading functionality. This technology will drastically change use of cell phones as we know it today as the biggest problem with the cell phones, namely the input mechanisms, is now solved. With the new generation of devices, ScanZoom will allow to send an email, give a call, access a website, download music or purchase items according to the data scanned.

I’ve requested a review unit and will report back.

More On Camera Phones As Bar Scanners

Here’s more on a subject I looked at in December (and then promptly forgot about): Using your camera phone as a bar code scanner. Wired says there are at least four software companies that have released applications that let you take a photo of a bar code, which will then trigger the download of coupons, reviews and other information about that product.

Not a bad idea. As the article points out, most phones have inbuilt browsers, so in theory it’s possible to check out competing prices and more information about a product you’re looking at. But who actually does that?

This is what the folk at call SEE-HEAR-BUY: “the capability to buy everything you see or hear, wherever you are.”

Wired also takes a glimpse at the bit that worries me: The destruction of the small time retailer. If people are just wandering into shops, taking a snap of a product and then wandering off again, how helpful is that going to be to their business? Either they ban camera phones in their shops, or they try to find a way to make it work for them, perhaps by creating ways to make alternative recommendations for a product the customer is viewing. And of course, the edge the bricks and mortar folk have always had: Their extensive knowledge, onsite, online and delivered in human packaging.

News: RFID Tags’ Dirty Secret

 A story from Reuters that says one of the biggest hurdles facing RFID tags — the widgets that store information about products — is that they still aren’t very good. “The tags fall far below the 99 percent reliability rate of UPC tags because of the difficulty of transmitting clean radio signals,” the piece says.
Many of the companies currently making them may not survive long enough to see the market emerge, apparently. “We are at an incredibly early stage of this technology and what it is actually capable of doing. All the promise of real-time supply chain visibility is just that. It’s promise,” IDC analyst Christopher Boone said.

News: Scary Future At Singapore Expo

 Here’s an example of RFID — the intelligent radio tag technology — used without people’s permission to do something a tad scary. The Singapore Straits Times reports (no link available as yet) today that a local start up, Tunity Technologies, installed a tracking system using RFID that would pinpoint every delegate’s physical position at the recent Global Entrepolis@Singapore expo at Suntec City venue — in real-time.
To use it, The Straits Times says, all one has to do is to approach one of the 40 conference staff carrying a web pad, and have them key in the missing person’s name. The dog-tag issued to each delegate contains an RFID tag, which hooks up with 60 readers placed inconspicuously around the building. Hmmm. I wonder how many of the delegates know about this.

News: Barcodes Fight Back

 I love this idea. The New York Times reports that James Patten, a graduate student in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, has come up with a digital tool that can scan the bar code printed on nearly any product, and indicate whether its corporate pedigree is blemished. The Corporate Fallout Detector “combines a bar-code reader with an internal database of pollution complaints and ethics violations packed in a casing resembling a cold-war-era Geiger counter”.
Marc Smith, a research sociologist at Microsoft, has meanwhile “been developing a similar device, combining a bar-code scanner, a hand-held computer and wireless Internet access. In a grocery store near a cafe that was promoting a Wi-Fi hot spot, he tested a box of cereal by scanning the bar code and letting the computer nose around on the Internet. It turned out that the cereal had been recalled because its label failed to mention the presence of nuts, a potential hazard to people with allergies.”
Both great ideas, but why stop there. You could use barcodes — or their more powerful successors, RFID tags — to hook up with data such as other consumer comments, cheaper products elsewhere, or whatever. Suddenly the tags and barcodes that empower retailers may end up empowering the consumer…

Column addon: RFID

  Further to my column in today’s FEER (subscription required) about the possibilities and pitfalls of Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, here’s the full text of answers from Alan Melling, Symbol Technology’s Senior Director, of EPC Solutions.
What are the real benefits of this technology? 
Without a doubt, the ability to achieve 100 percent real-time asset visibility without the cost of human intervention to perform tracking activities. This visibility and the information it generates translates directly into supply chain efficiencies – such as lower stock-out rates and fewer rush orders – that go directly to both the top and bottom lines of traditional retailers.

Inventory tracking/retail behaviour/product theft/non-retail fields?
Inventory tracking at the pallet and carton level are almost certain to be the applications that “prime the pump” for RFID in retail. There are a lot fewer pallets than individual items, less cost sensitivity – and pallets have no privacy concerns.
Once the tags make it to the item level, their primary function will still be for inventory control – quickly detecting that a particular brand of shampoo is out of stock, for example.
However, the technology can also be used in the store for theft detection and identifying shopping patterns, but consumers will first need to be educated on the benefits TO THEM of the technology when used this way. For example, if RFID could be used to let you know when you pass your favorite brand of peanut butter in the supermarket aisle, and it is on sale, would that perceived as plus? For some consumers yes, and for others no. The key to success will be to put the control where its belongs – in the hands of the consumer.

What’s your view on privacy concerns about RFID? 
Privacy is a very real issue. To a certain extent the fears expressed to date are somewhat overblown – the technology simply does not support doomsday scenarios such as the government scanning the books you just purchased from a truck in the street – the tags just are not capable of it. What is very real, however, is every consumer’s right to understand and be comfortable with technologies applied to products they may buy. Everyone involved in the RFID industry understands and respects this – which is why the most popular tags – EPC tags – have an in-built “Kill” command that can and will be used to render them inoperative before they leave the store.
Are there issues which have not been addressed?
There are many issues that are still in the process of being addressed. Standards need to be finalized, costs need to come down further, reading equipment and systems need to be made more reliable, more RFID software solutions need to be developed, and privacy concerns need to be addressed to name a few. However, with the emergence of a strong new standard for retail and supply chain applications – EPC (Electronic Product Code) – the general tone of converstion has switched from “if” to “when” the technology will make its mark in retail. There is a general sense that the remaining issues are all very solveable, and that it just a matter of time.
How do you see the future of this technology?
The future of RFID in retail and supply chain applications is a bright one, but one that will perhaps be slower and more incremental in approach than many suppose today. In particular, some have positioned RFID as an immediate “replacement” for bar code. The reality is that it is not designed as a one-for-one bar code replacement – it does more than a bar code, but also costs more than a bar code. The companies that benefit from RFID will be those that successfully integrate RFID and bar code technologies – using each where it is the most cost effective.
Almost certainly, the first broad applicatiions of RFID will be in the backroom of stores and distribution centers – on relatively unglamorous items such as pallets, crates, cartons, and plastic containers. Over time it will become more visible on individual items on the retail floor, but this will take time – years – and will require that concerns about privacy are effectively addressed.