2D Codes: Coming to a Phone Near You

At most every conference I attend, I’m asked when 2D bar codes will come to the United States.

Also known as QR codes, these allow consumers to use their wireless devices to interact in a graphical manner with traditional and digital media. The unique, two-dimensional bar codes, which can be placed on any item, allow the consumer to take a picture using their MMS (camera phone functionality) on a mobile device. Then, through bar code reading software, the 2D code is interpreted to provide product information, downloads, and more. 2D codes are a visual system allowing consumers to access relevant information much like short codes, IVR or other mobile media techniques.

In Japan, approximately 40 percent of consumers have used bar codes through their mobile device. Why so many? Japanese operators and handset manufacturers have worked together to ensure devices support visual bar code technology, helping to drive adoption. However, the Japanese business model isn’t supported by mobile advertising. instead, consumers are charged standard data rates for accessing information over their mobile devices.

The codes are also utilized in South Korea. There, each operator chose to pursue its own 2D strategy, hindering consumer adoption. There are many 2D codes in Korea, but no ubiquity for brands looking to deploy cross operator campaigns, posing a challenge.

In the Philippines, handset manufacturers sell directly to the consumer. Adoption of 2D codes is having some success. In this ad-supported market, brands are able to secure their own codes and launch to the consumer. Brands pay on a per-campaign basis, but per-click may prove to be the ideal business model.

The Paris transport system launched an interactive campaign using 2D codes with New York-based Scanbuy. The consumer can scan a code and see when the next bus or subway will arrive. There are over 160 bar codes in a single station! Consumers who don’t have a bar code scanning tool on their device can access the application to download through SMS or WAP.

I asked Jonathan Bulkeley, CEO of Scanbuy, when we might see 2D applications come to the U.S. Obstacles to adoption here include lack of camera phone (MMS) consumer adoption, as well as cost-effective pricing models. A broad effort at educating consumers and advertisers about the technology is needed, as well as point-of-sale integration for applications that use 2D codes for mobile commerce, Bulkeley says. Most promising uses include ticketing, couponing, and product or service information. The key is applications which rely on consumer pull to access the information they seek.

Demand on the advertiser side is huge. Advertisers get it, says Bulkeley. Print publishers are especially interested in 2D campaigns and what the visual opportunity can do for them.

Cosmo Girl launched an application with Mobot last year based on pure image recognition. Cosmo Girl readers were encouraged to take photos with their mobile device of ads or features in the publication and send them to the magazine for a chance to win prizes. The Cosmo Girl application wasn’t based on 2D codes, but rather image recognition. Bulkeley says image recognition is the “holy grail, but making it a reality is years away for a number of reasons.”

Scanbuy is launching U.S. campaigns targeted towards specific devices and demographics. “People change their behavior based on ubiquity,” Bulkeley said. This means 2D applications, on a broad scale in the U.S., are at least 18 to 24 months away.

Scanbuy recently used the technology as part of the U.S. Air Force’s “Do Something Amazing” campaign, which will be featured at venues including NASCAR and other sporting events across the country. Consumers will be able to utilize the Scanbuy technology to download videos about Air Force career opportunities.

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