Bar-coding the Real World with URLs

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From: Rohit Khare (
Date: Wed May 03 2000 - 21:51:18 PDT

May 4, 2000
Scan the Headlines? No, Just the Bar Codes
Encoding Technologies for Newspapers and Magazines Link Printed Page
to Web Page

Readers of The Post and Courier, the daily newspaper in Charleston,
S.C., may have noticed something peculiar about their paper this
week. Tiny black marks, no wider or higher than a five-letter word in
a news column, have been appearing throughout the pages since Monday.
There is one under the weather map, another on the masthead, still
more at the top of the business and local sections.

These little symbols, which at first glance appear to be nothing more
than smudges, provide a direct link between the newspaper and the
Internet. Each mark is a miniature Universal Product Code for a Web
address. When those U.P.C.'s, or bar codes, are read by a handheld
scanner connected to a computer, a Web page pops up on the screen.
The bar code under the weather map, for example, takes readers to the
weather page on the newspaper's Web site.

Alan H. Seim, director of Internet operations at The Post and
Courier, considers the bar codes a much-needed solution to a problem
that newspapers and their readers have been facing since the dawn of
the Web: the awkwardness of printing and typing (let alone
remembering) a new Web address.

"You just beep on this thing and you're there," Mr. Seim said.

But the tiny bar codes are more than just a print-based replacement
for long Web addresses. They are one of several new technologies that
create hyperlinks for the physical world, establishing a direct
connection between static objects and the ever-changing Internet.
With these links, magazines, books, postcards, product packages --
any imaginable artifacts with room for bar codes -- could become
on-ramps to Web pages that offer related reports, movies, sound clips
or online order forms.

The Post and Courier is the first newspaper in the country to
experiment with the miniature-bar-code technology. This month,
Charleston residents who sign up as testers will receive free
handheld scanners so they can activate the bar codes and jump
straight to the corresponding Web sites. GoCode, the Charleston
company that developed the technology, will also put the codes in
several catalogs in the next few months, and more free handheld
scanners will be distributed.

By summer, observant readers of Wired magazine and Popular Mechanics
may spot another version of these offline links. For them, the mark
will not be a smudgelike bar code but a small logo with an uppercase
"D" lurking on the lower outside corner of some pages. The D stands
for Digimarc, a company that has developed a way to embed nearly
imperceptible digital watermarks in printed text and photographs.
When held up to a Webcam perched on a monitor, the watermarks tell
the computer to display related Web pages.

In June, Digimarc will offer free software that can be downloaded and
integrated with software for the Webcams. By summer's end, company
officials say, most Webcam manufacturers will have integrated the
Digimarc software into their products. The company, meanwhile, is
hoping to have signed contracts with more than 100 magazines that
will use the watermarks.

Bar codes of other shapes and sizes may also dot the pages of print
publications soon. Belo, a media company in Dallas, announced that it
would incorporate bar codes into some of the pages of its newspapers,
which include The Dallas Morning News and The Providence Journal in
Rhode Island. A bar code reader developed by DigitalConvergence.:Com,
a hyperlink company, will be distributed to read those symbols and
translate them into Web pages that appear on the screen.

Belo's 17 television stations are also considering a version of the
technology that uses sounds instead of symbols. To open a Web page, a
television program could emit an audible tone that would send a
signal to a computer that was connected to the television via audio

Those who have experimented with off line links say that they have
potential to change the way people approach the Web. Until now,
people who see a printed Web address have had to jot it down, tear
out the corresponding page or try to remember the Web site's
top-level domain name so they can search the site later. And once
they remember to visit the sites, they often have to dig through
multiple Web pages to find what they want. According to Internet
analysts, most people give up after three or four clicks.

But with digital watermarks or bar codes, a printed page will have
"embedded intelligence," said Guy Creese, a senior analyst at the
Aberdeen Group, a strategic consulting company. Mr. Creese saw a
demonstration of Digimarc's technology a month ago.

"It strikes me as an intriguing way to handle the information
overload problem," Mr. Creese said. "It really brings impulse buying
and searching to a new level."

Anything that increases the possibility of impulse buying is bound to
attract advertisers. Ford Motor Company, for example, is preparing to
include Digimarc's technology in full-page advertisements in both
Wired and Popular Mechanics. At least 10 other advertisers, including
Visa and Sony, are also planning to test the technology.

But before offline linking enters the mainstream, it must clear a
hardware hurdle. Handheld scanners or Webcams will have to become as
ubiquitous as computers, analysts say. GoCode is trying to make that
happen by giving away scanners that are sponsored by advertisers and
that will come with buttons that take users to the sponsors' Web
sites. DigitalConvergence.:Com has a similar idea. And Digimarc is
hoping that the growing popularity of Webcams will give it an edge.

But even if people have the right equipment, companies face another
problem: getting people to make the technology part of their routine.

"The downside is that you have to teach someone to use it," said
David Cooperstein, a research director at Forrester Research, after
seeing a demonstration of GoCode's technology. People will have to be
shown that the bar code "is not just a smudge on the page," he said.

Mr. Seim, of The Post and Courier, is aware of those issues. But his
newspaper is prepared to take on the challenge in exchange for the
chance to offer a cutting-edge service to its readers. A regional
paper with a daily circulation of 110,000, The Post and Courier has
been trying with mixed success to integrate the newspaper and its Web

Most of the stories on the site, Mr. Seim said, are "shovelware,"
digital versions of exactly what appears in the paper.

But with the advent of the bar codes, the newspaper has more
incentive to include updated news and weather reports on its Web
site. While printed Uniform Resource Locators, or U.R.L.'s, have
always given ambitious readers an invitation to the Web site, the bar
codes provide a much easier way to make the connection, Mr. Seim
said. With a scanner in hand, going to the Web becomes part of the
reading experience.

"The goal is to keep the readers involved with you and your site,"
Mr. Seim said. "People might like to find out, for example, what
happened with Elián González since the time the page was printed."

Classified advertising is another area of the newspaper that will
take advantage of the technology. Mr. Seim hopes that the paper's
staff will soon start using software that will automatically convert
new U.R.L.'s to bar codes during the production process. (He now uses
static bar codes that are set for specific Web sites.) Once that
happens, the classified advertising section will be specked with the
bar codes. A two-line pitch about a used car could immediately link
to the seller's Web site, complete with photographs, references and
details about the car's maintenance record.

Popular Mechanics is planning to add more timely content to its Web
site to take advantage of the digital watermarks that will first
appear in its August issue. Jay McGill, the magazine's publisher,
said he expected at least three or four feature articles, as well as
nearly a dozen advertisements, to have the watermarks embedded within

For example, the magazine has been running a monthly column about the
progress of a Nascar racing team. By the time the magazine is
published, the columns are out of date because magazine writers
usually work several weeks ahead of publication dates. But once the
column is embedded with an offline link, it can transport people
directly to the Web site of the magazine, which will start offering
weekly updates.

"We think it will change the dynamic of how we edit the magazine and
relationships with our readers," Mr. McGill said. He added that when
he first saw the technology and observed how fast Web pages opened
after simply holding the magazine up to the Webcam, "I just went,
Wow, we have to have this."

Mr. McGill added, however, that in addition to the requirement of
Webcams, offline links are burdened with another drawback: people
have to take the magazines to their computers to gain access to the
Web sites.

Still, some analysts are optimistic that advances in wireless
technology in the next year will make the concept viable. If the bar
codes and watermarks could be scanned and stored by a wireless device
instead of by a scanner or Webcam tethered to the computer, they
would be more useful.

Better yet, if the marks could be scanned by a device that talked to
a personal digital assistant with wireless Internet service, people
could gain access to the sites they were reading about while there
were on the subway -- or on the couch.

"Getting this bolted into a P.D.A. makes a lot of sense," said Mr.
Creese, of the Aberdeen Group.

Regardless of how the technology emerges, the founders of the
companies creating offline links are envisioning broader applications
for their products. Bruce Davis, chief executive and president of
Digimarc, said that he was working toward a day when digital
watermarks would be embedded in books, CD's, bank cards and direct

T. B. Pickens, the founder of GoCode, has begun distributing business
cards that contain his bar code. By the end of the month, people who
receive his card and scan the code will be able to import his contact
information directly into Outlook, Microsoft's address book, with one
click. Even more personal data, like credit card numbers and a
shipping address, are also embedded in the bar code for Mr. Pickens's
use. He unlocks the sensitive data by scanning his business card and
then scanning a house key that features a sticker with a
corresponding bar code. When both are scanned together, Mr. Pickens
can fill in online order forms with a few clicks.

I.B.M. and Palm Computing are also testing the prospects of offline
links. The companies are working with a Safeway grocery store in
England that has provided Palm P.D.A.'s equipped with built-in
scanners to more than 500 of its customers. When the customers scan
the bar codes on the packages of any products they are running out of
-- whether soup cans or cereal boxes -- the computer adds those
products to digital grocery lists. The system uses the Internet to
send each list to Safeway, where employees collect and package the
products so they can be picked up by the customer.

For now, though, officials at The Post and Courier say they are
excited to be one of the first publications trying out the
technology, even if it means that their newspaper is specked with
tiny black rectangles.

"We think it could be a breakthrough on how to connect the reader of
the printed word to the Internet," said Larry Tarleton, associate
publisher of The Post and Courier. "And a lot of people are trying to
figure that out."

May 4, 2000
Talking to Computers in a Language of Lines and Specks

The companies that have created bar codes and digital watermarks to
link printed pages to sites on the Internet have their own secrets
about how they work. But much of it involves the idea that a printed
image can contain more than meets the eye.

The bar codes developed by GoCode, for example, look like little
rectangles made up of white specks on black squares and a few black
lines. In fact, those rectangles are a specialized type of symbol
called a two-dimensional bar code. The little specks form patterns
that provide an extra dimension of information than is available in a
traditional bar code, which is made up of straight lines. A bar code
with two white specks in the corner, for example, will send a
different message than one with one speck.

The messages contain more than a U.R.L., or Uniform Resource Locator,
that corresponds to a Web site. They include instructions that tell
the computer to open a Web browser and pull up that site. "It's not
just that it is raw information," said George Powell, president of
the GoCode Products Corporation. "We pack tags, or protocols, inside
the code."

The straight lines on the left side of the code are simpler signals
designed to be picked up by the scanners first. "They are the piece
that says, 'Hey, I'm a GoCode and I'm over here,' " Mr. Powell said.

GoCode has developed a handheld scanner that essentially takes a
picture of the bar code, deciphers what it says and sends that
information to the computer. GoCode, which is planning to distribute
the scanners free with the help of sponsorships, estimates that the
scanners will cost $100 or less in a retail store.

Digimarc's technology also uses images to store information but takes
a different approach. Its digital watermarks are designed not to be
perceptible to the human eye. "It's like a dog whistle for the
Internet," said Bruce Davis, Digimarc's chief executive.

Imagine, for example, a photograph on a magazine page. Before the
magazine is printed, the watermark is applied to an electronic
version of the photograph by using Digimarc's production software.
When printed, the photograph may look no different at first glance,
but in fact the pixels have been adjusted to contain tiny signals
that can be picked up by a digital camera that includes Digimarc
software. The technology adjusts the luminance of the pixels, which a
trained eye might pick up as a slight variation in an image's color
or shades of light and dark.

Jay McGill, publisher of Popular Mechanics, described the difference
as a slight graininess. "But to the average consumer," he said, "it
will be difficult to detect."

The camera, however, does detect the adjustments, and the software
decodes them into instructions for the computer, which immediately
pulls up a Web page specific to that watermark. The marks could be
applied to a whole page, to several images on a page or even to a
paragraph of text, Mr. Davis said.

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