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Mobile Camera Phone Used as a Scanner

When is a mobile phone that includes a camera, not really a camera? When it behaves like a reader, receiving and displaying coded information from the objects in front of its lens.

"It means using the camera phone not as a picture-taker," says Kenneth Hyers, principal analyst of mobile wireless research at ABI Research, "but as a scanner capturing metadata about products or services related to objects around us. I think we'll see more of this in coming years."

That data can be visible, as in the case of barcodes or the "QR" codes popular in Japan; or unseen, as in "steganography" which in its current form, announced by Fujitsu in mid-2005, involves hiding information in printed pictures, invisible to the human eye but extractable by Fujitsu's algorithms in a camera phone.

"Imagine walking through the park," says Hyers, "and aiming your camera phone at a data tag on a statue. It directs your phone's browser to a web page about a historic building that used to stand there, or a concert that played there last summer, complete with video clips."

Aim your camera phone at a scene pictured in a magazine, and it could deliver a map or other information about the site. In a store, you could "scan" a product's label and get the latest consumer report article about it. In the supermarket, you could retrieve a list of a food's ingredients to ensure they won't trigger an allergic reaction.

None of this is widely available yet, but some steps towards it are visible. One company, scanR, lets you use your camera phone as a scanner, copier and fax. Nextcode offers free downloadable software that reads certain kinds of barcodes and allows the phone user to download product information, ringtones and wallpapers. Another company, Mobot, lets consumers photograph advertisements, products and logos, then scans the image using its own visual recognition technology and directs them to related information.

"But these applications are all proprietary," adds Hyers "A real market for this requires some standardization, and for marketers, operators, and handset vendors to be on the same page."

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