The Future of Visual Search: UPCs, QR Codes, and Augmented Reality

Mobile devices have eyes and ears. Why not use them?

Portability, microphone, and camera make mobile devices better suited to voice and visual inputs, rather than the typing that rules desktop search.

We’ve been following the emerging areas of voice and visual search since May. Since then, we’ve seen lots of activity, especially on the “visual” side of the equation.

This includes different flavors of augmented reality and barcode scanning. The latter involves pushing information to users whose mobility and proximity to the point of purchase make them prime targets.

This is happening with UPC, pervasive in retail environments, as well as QR codes. Short for quick response, these are ubiquitous in Japan and getting popular in the U.S. as marketers slap them on more places, and apps like RedLaser and ScanLife gain favor.

Among the many market events pushing this forward, the past few weeks alone have seen a few notable examples.

Just Like It

Facebook Like buttons are taking form in the physical world with scannable QR codes.

A service called Likify lets marketers add QR codes to signs or print media. When scanned it translates to a Facebook Like. Nike is already using the codes in outdoor advertising throughout Belgium.


Goggle It

Google’s Goggles finally launched on the iPhone earlier this month after nine months of Android availability. Pictures taken with a mobile device are referenced against image databases to identify objects as a kind of launchpad for a search query.

Golden Gate BridgeGolden Gate Bridge

Playing Favorites

Speaking of Google, it’s not terribly new but worth mentioning that it has sent QR codes for merchants in its “Favorite Places” program to place in their windows. Passersby scan these codes to be brought to the merchant’s Google Places listing.

Easter Egg

Google also revealed earlier this month (via Matt Cutts tweet) a hidden surprise in its link shortening tool Adding “.qr” to a shortened link generates a QR code that can be added to your website, store window, T-shirt… you name it.

Fish Food

Not to be outdone, link shortening incumbent answered Google with its own QR code generator. It also couldn’t resist a jab at Google, placing its logo below each QR code, literally eating Google’s signature colored balls.

Fish Food

Like a Laser

IPhone barcode scanning app RedLaser earlier this month announced that it will add QR code scanning capability. The app is a favorite for product UPCs and has been downloaded 5 million times — 3 million alone since its June acquisition by eBay.

Drink & Scan

Announced this week, Kendall-Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay will now be distributed with “necker” tags that include QR codes. Once scanned, users are taken to wine information, food pairings, videos, recipes, and shopping lists.

Plane Sight

Fusing augmented reality, geo-location, and flight tracking, Plane Finder AR lets you point your phone up to see flight info and destinations of planes in the sky.

“I don’t know the exact purpose of this,” said Skyhook Wireless CEO Ted Morgan at last month’s Mobilize Conference in San Francisco. “But tell me you’re not going to try it.”

Plane Finder

What Does it All Mean?

So what’s the big deal here, besides a cool factor for the mobile geeks among us? Visual search — and mobile bar code scanning in particular — certainly hasn’t reached the mainstream. InsightExpress reports 4 percent penetration among U.S. mobile users.

That has a lot to do with device penetration and even lower penetration of barcode scanning apps and users. But that will change with more smartphones literally putting the capability in more users’ hands.

Beyond hardware capability, the above market events (and many more we expect) will also push it forward. This is especially true if you consider the gravitational pull of the companies pushing out these products — namely Facebook and Google.

As these tools make it easier to generate and distribute QR codes, more publishers and media companies will likewise slap them on printed materials, websites, billboards, store windows, etc.

The resulting presence of QR codes all around us should in turn familiarize mobile users with scanning them. In parallel, many of the aforementioned consumer-facing products and apps will further lower adoption barriers.

Combined with general mobile device evolution and penetration, the pieces are falling into place for an all-out mobile barcode revolution in the coming months. The mobile Geeks among us will welcome it with open arms and open camera-phone shutters.

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