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Posted on Sat, Oct. 09, 2004

Teens test computer's new wave

'Semacodes' are key to instant information

Pioneer Press

They look like tiny, unfinished crossword puzzles but according to their Canadian developer, semacodes could unlock the world of "ubiquitous computing."

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 vice versa.

"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 Toronto.

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 missions.

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.

Leslie Brooks Suzukamo covers telecommunications and technology and can be reached at or 651-228-5475.

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