Friday, January 25, 2008

SEARS, ScanBuy 2D Codes, And The Web 2.0

Web 2.0 application where the cellphone handset with a camera becomes an automated information retrieval device that delivers the the web displayed into ones hand. Image Credit: ScanBuy

SEARS, ScanBuy 2D Codes, And The Web 2.0

Last week, at the NRF 97th Annual Convention & EXPO 2008 held at the Jacob Javits Center in New York, Sears discussed its efforts to launch an in-store test solution for providing customers access to information on products they were interested in purchasing. This test represents the first major retailer combined with selected product manufacturers in the United States to investigate the Physical World Hyperlink functionality of symbology and the cellphone handset.

In this test, that began its roll-out last month in a store located in Georgia, Sears was interested in testing ways on how to automate providing product information without having to place price checker/information kiosk systems in the aisles. The idea is to provide information through leveraging a tool the customer may already be carrying in their hand … the camera cellphone.

Sears has placed a special use two-dimensional symbology (read digitally on an X-Y axis) developed by ScanBuy on advertising displays located strategically next to participating manufacturers goods throughout the retail floor.

The cameraphone as a scannerphone using ScanBuy symbology. Video Credit: Face2099

Sears has its concerns with this specific application on a couple of levels in that not all phones have cameras, or if they have the camera – the phone does not have the software needed to have the phone decode the image captured and bring the information to the phone’s display.

Other technologies considered for this application include NFC or near field communications that would be triggered through cellphones that are equipped with an RFID chip. Normally this chip is used as the “wallet” in a PoS cashpoint application when the phone is used as a credit card for identification purposes, but can be adapted to trigger a Web 2.0 response when the customer is looking for additional information on products offered on the Sears sales floor.

At Symblogogy, we ask this technology question to Sears:

For the application of replacing the functionality of having to place price checker/information kiosk systems in the aisles and leveraging the cellphone as an information display tool, why not test Bluetooth broadcasting to the cellphone display (commonly referred to as Bluejacking)?

A high number of handsets already are equipped with Bluetooth capability and the technology is easy to implement in that no additional action is required from the customer except to opt-in by turning on the Bluetooth function while roaming the asiles in the store.

The cameraphone as a scannerphone. The camera picks up the ScanBuy symbology image, decodes it, then has the phone launch a webpage associated with the decoded information contained in the ScanBuy code. Image Credit: Face2099

This article excerpted from eWEEK -

Sears First Out Of Gates with 2-D Bar Codes

By Evan Schuman - 2008-01-18

Sears First Out Of Gates with 2-D Bar Codes

Sears is the first major U.S. retailer to start a public trial of 2-D barcode technology.

Efforts to implement retail 2-D bar codes are accelerating, with Sears becoming the first U.S. retailer to begin a public trial that started in mid-December at a store in Marietta, Georgia.
There are multiple vendors pushing the technology in the United States; Best Buy and Target are working with a company called StoreXperience, while Sears and others are talking with an outfit called ScanBuy.
The technique involves having a cell phone's digital camera "look" at a small 2-D bar code on an advertisement, which launches an applet. A server interprets the bar code and the phone then launches a Web browser and deep-links to a page on that site, typically the Web site of the advertiser.

Currently, the biggest concern, which is also likely to be the most short-lived, is that the service is available on a relatively few phones in the United States. The concern about a shortage of supported phones was mentioned by a Sears manager involved in the trial.

ScanBuy, for example, has worked out deals with only Sprint and Alltel, according to ScanBuy CEO Jonathan Bulkeley. Such negotiations are complex because it requires deals and programming for multiple browsers, carriers, hardware manufacturers, operating systems and camera manufacturers. A code or management change from any one of those players can make the whole package unravel.

At the Sears trial, several hundred product advertisements in the store have the code, Bulkeley said. To simplify matters, Sears is initially having store associates use the phone and then show the results to customers, as opposed to letting consumers do their own scanning. This sidesteps some of the hurdles, such as guaranteeing that the phones used are fully compatible with the demo and that the cameras are aimed properly. On some phones, if the bar code is not directly in the center of the screen, the application won't work.

Another concern is that consumers must download the application. The applications tend to be small—both the apps for StoreXperience and ScanBuy start at about 200K, depending on the browser and the required OS needed—and can be installed in less than a minute.
The Sears trial is slated to end this June.

One IT manager with a Fortune 50 consumer goods manufacturer said that his firm is in talks with ScanBuy and that they were introduced to the firm by Verizon. That manager said he is impressed with the technology and is discussing it internally, but he believes that 2-D bar code will be pushed aside by NFC (near-field communications) devices, which are still a few years away. He sees 2-D as a short-term placeholder until NFC is real.

"Personally, I think that touchless NFC approaches will likely be more successful. No need to aim your camera. But Scanbuy's approaches are worth following," he said.
That manager's thoughts about NFC were similar to others. But news this week—courtesy of a new NFC market share report this week from ABI Research—suggested that NFC is farther away than initially thought, giving 2-D more maneuvering room.

The new ABI numbers for NFC shipments dropped the 2007 estimate to 650,000 from a predicted 1.1 million and also reduced the projections for this year to 6.52 million, from a predicted 9.81 million.

Even so, Bulkeley predicts NFC and 2-D bar code co-existence based on pure economics. The nature of NFC will lend itself better for payment and POS interface but it's not practical to create one for every print ad in stores, streets and in publications. But 2-D bar codes, he argued, can be mass-produced for very little money.

"NFC will be for a payment mechanism but I'm not so sure it will be an information access mechanism," Bulkeley said. "Car and Driver (magazine) isn't going to print 400 near field codes."

Like all trials, it's not clear whether any will lead to actual deployments. And like all negotiations, it's not clear how many of the retailers who have expressed an interest will end up agreeing to a trial. A Nordstrom's manager, for example, said Thursday that the chain has decided to not pursue the discussed 2-D trial. One reason mentioned was that it was seen as placing too much of a burden on the consumer.
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