They look like tiny, unfinished crossword puzzles but according
to their Canadian developer, semacodes could unlock the world of
In that world, ordinary objects like walls, furniture, billboards
and that package of frozen salmon in the deli case would be able to
"talk" to you via your camera cell phone.
Qwest Communications International says it is going to
demonstrate what that world might be like with a scavenger hunt
today in downtown Minneapolis featuring about 125 Twin Cities area
high school students armed with Nokia camera phones.
The teen-agers, divided by their high schools into five teams,
will be given Nokia camera phones and sent out into a designated
area of downtown to hunt down semacode stickers, which will be
plastered in various places for the teams to find.
By using their camera phones to take a picture of the semacode
and uploading the picture to a computer, the teens get information
sent back to their cell phone in a text message that will tell them
how many points and dollars they have earned and give them clues to
find more semacodes. The teams can rack up to $5,000 and the one
with the most points wins a free concert from a band called
Yellowcard later this month.
Underlying the fun and games, however, is a serious idea called
ubiquitous computing. It's a sort of geek's nirvana where computers
exchange information with almost everything in the environment, and
"It's sort of like the religion of animism, where spirits are
thought to inhabit everyday objects, and by inhabiting the objects,
they can be helpful to you," said Simon Woodside, inventor of the
semacode and now CEO and founder of Semacode Corp. outside
Scientists like Woodside see ubiquitous computing as a way to
turbocharge the back-and-forth flow of information between computers
and the environment. Businesses could plaster semacodes on stickers
everywhere to give consumers a way to get far more information about
their products and services.
"It's kind of like a 'Star Trek' tricorder," he said, comparing
camera-phones outfitted to read semacodes, to the science fiction
device that Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy carried on away
In our world, though, it's still pretty theoretical. Woodside
developed his semacode system in March and so far, it's only been
used at a convention in Helsinki, a demonstration of a way to track
cattle in Orlando, Fla., and on business cards.
In Europe and Asia, particularly Japan, however, semacodes
already are in use on billboards, in magazines and on some packaged
foods, said Dennis Crowley, founder of the New York City technology
firm Ubiquity Labs, which is helping Qwest.
"In Japan, they can put it on a package of salmon and the
consumer can tell where it was caught and when it was caught and
when it made its appearance in the market," Crowley said.
The semacode jams in all that information because it's really
nothing more than a beefed up barcode that is vertical as well as
horizontal, hence it's square, crossword puzzle-like appearance.
Most camera cell phone use of semacodes is occurring in Europe
and Asia, but the U.S. is catching up, just as it has with the use
of text messaging, downloadable ring tones and picture phones, said
Geoff Kann, Qwest's director of its ConQwest game today.
Denver-based Qwest is the first American phone company to use
semacodes, albeit in a game, and it hopes semacodes catch on and
drives sales of camera cell phones, which Qwest gets through a
partnership with SprintPCS.
The teams participating in today's game are from Eden Prairie
High School, Highland Park High School in St. Paul, Woodbury Senior
High School, St. Louis Park High School and Robbinsdale Cooper
Senior High School.