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The Internet of Things

From the November/December 2007 Issue

Your cell phone camera can tell you all about a product. Is this an ephemeral gimmick or a great business? Time and the market will tell, writes NICK SCHULZ.

Internet of ThingsTodd Malan is a frustrated oenophile. When he tastes a wine he likes at a restaurant, he has no handy way of recording the relevant information about it—name, vintage, region, year, and so on. Keeping a wine diary is cumbersome, and it’s notoriously difficult to remove the labels for future reference. 

But Malan, who runs a trade association in Washington, has treated this frustration as an opportunity. He now sits on the board of directors of a Boston-based company called Nextcode that is playing a small role in building what’s known as the Internet of Things.

When you sit at your computer surfing cyberspace and hit on something you want to learn more about, you click a hyperlink. Why not do the same in the physical world? Malan imagined himself “clicking” on the burgundies he enjoyed and storing the information for later. He figured there must be a way to use a wireless device to accomplish the task.

Nextcode, founded in 2003, develops technologies to make the physical world clickable. It builds software platforms that transform your cell phone or personal digital assistant (PDA), like a Blackberry, into a mobile mouse, one that can help you navigate a hyperlinked world. Here’s how it works....

When you sit at your computer surfing cyberspace and hit on something you want to learn more about, you click a hyperlink. Why not do the same in the physical world?

Specially designed bar codes can be placed on physical objects. The bar codes are similar to the iconic Universal Product Codes that have been imprinted on supermarket goods since the 1970s for inventory and pricing. But instead of a series of parallel lines of varying widths, the newer codes consist of squares and rectangles. This makes a typical code look like an exceedingly difficult game of Tetris. Such codes turn out to be easier for optical scanners, such as the lens of a small camera, to read. And they can hold more data than traditional bar codes.

Using your cell phone’s camera, you snap a picture of the bar code. Software designed by Nextcode called ConnexTo does the rest. It scans the code, interprets it, and then serves up information immediately. It can present text information about the object, redirect you to a Web page, play a video or audio clip, help you make a purchase, or do just about anything else you could imagine doing in cyberspace.

For example, Nextcode is developing a project with Boston’s Freedom Trail (a sightseeing route) and the Wentworth Institute of Technology. The developers want to enrich the experience of visiting the city’s famous venues. By attaching scannable bar codes to plaques at these sites, visitors can download text, audio, and video to their PDAs—for viewing right away or later. The landmark sites become stops along the Internet of Things, clickable links in real life.

Several firms are trying to exploit the commercial opportunities of physical hyperlinking. Among these are Xxtreme Measures LLC, a California based marketing firm that sees brand-building potential in digital bar codes (by driving consumer traffic to stores and websites), and NeoMedia Technologies Inc. of Fort Myers, Florida, a company that makes Web-enabled handsets equipped with software to take consumers directly to pages on the mobile Internet.

By attaching scannable bar codes to plaques at these sites, visitors can download text, audio, and video to their PDAs—for viewing right away or later.

But the future of this market is uncertain. The evolution of the Internet is replete with what I call “PointCast moments.” In the mid- to late-1990s, PointCast was one of the hottest Internet properties. The firm had developed a so-called “push” technology (allowed users to customize their news feeds and have the news “pushed” to them).
PointCast had tens of millions of dollars in venture capital funding. But a robust market never materialized for what it was offering.

The question for the architects of the Internet of Things is whether or not it’s another PointCast, or if there is a serious—and profitable—market to develop and tap.

One bright spot for developers of physical-world hyperlinking is that it’s already being adopted in Asia. Using cell phones or PDAs, McDonald’s customers in Japan access nutritional information from bar codes located on the food wrappers. And home buyers can point their PDAs at “for sale” signs, and the bar codes will give them prices,
square footage, and more.

Nextcode recently broke into the Asian market, signing a licensing deal with Smart, a wireless communications company in the Philippines with over 20 million subscribers. Smart will load ConnexTo software on all its phones, permitting users to scan bar codes. The next step is for Nextcode to cajole advertising firms and businesses to embrace   physical hyperlinking and fuel the Internet era’s next killer app—and not just in the Philippines.

How likely is it you will want to use your mobile phone as a mouse? Time, and the market, will tell.

Nick Schulz is senior editor of THE AMERICAN and writes the Techno-Ideas column. He is also editor of TCSDaily.com.

Image credit: photography from istockphoto.

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