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There’s no navigating through menus, no typing on a keyboard. You go straight to the desired content.

By Anne Stuart, Nov. 2005

Sure, it's possible to use your mobile phone to access Web information on the go, but who wants to type a URL on a cell phone keyboard or wade through menu pages to find the content they want?

Researchers at HP Labs in Bristol, England, want to make retrieving information as easy as snapping photos or speed dialing your friends. The idea is to offer content related to your immediate environment, whether you’re browsing in your favorite store, taking a self-guided tour of a historic site, or standing before a poster advertising a concert you’d like to attend.

To make that possible, they've equipped camera phones with barcode-reading technology to provide one-click access to information and services on the move. So far, they've run trials of the technology with the BBC and the British newspaper The Times, among others. (Since this article was first published the team won a prestigious TV award for the BBC project.)

Mobile phone-based computing

The project grew out of an earlier HP Labs experiment called Cooltown, in which researchers developed systems that let users of wireless handheld devices – such as HP iPAQs – quickly obtain Web content relevant to their current locations.

“More recently, it became clear that camera phones were also capable of reading bar codes,” Kindberg says. And, because such phones are quickly becoming ubiquitous, they make more sense for ubiquitous computing – that is, computing wherever you happen to be.

In fact, cell phone-based computing already has caught on in Japan, where bar-coded messages have popped up in magazine and newspaper ads, and outdoor posters. According to one survey, bar-code readers are the third-most requested feature among Japanese cell-phone customers, trailing only high-resolution cameras and music capability in popularity.

HP’s Bristol team developed software that, with Gavitec AG’s image-processing technology as a key component, lets camera phones read codes and retrieve content. They have also developed software for content providers to create and manage bar codes. (Software is currently only available in the European Union.)

Instant access to content

From the user's’ point of view, the technology couldn’t be easier. When users point the camera phone at a visual symbol – that is, the bar code – the software immediately shows it has recognized the code with pop-up text describing what the code links to. If the user activates the code, the software either fetches content from the Web or it sends a text (SMS) message to request the content. The technology thus takes full advantage of the existing Mobile Commerce infrastructure.

“There’s no navigating through menus, no typing on a keyboard,” Kindberg says. “You go straight to the desired content.”

Providing that kind of fast, easy, direct access is the technology’s greatest strength.

“You can get the content while you’re still in the situation,” Kindberg says. For instance, while reading your morning newspaper on public transport or at the breakfast table, you could instantly obtain more details about a particular ad or story by using your phone to scan an embedded bar code. There's no need to wait until you get to work or even access your home PC.

Business applications

Meanwhile, content providers can strategically place bar codes offering the right people targeted, timely information. “One of the key benefits is capturing people’s immediate impulses," Kindberg notes.

The technology also lets businesses offer customized, location-specific content. For instance, a record company might print and distribute thousands of posters advertising a popular band’s new CD.

Each individual poster could contain a unique bar code with a link to unique content – a poster at a particular bus stop might link to a message indicating that if you’re interested in buying that album right now, it’s available at Ralph’s Records just around the corner.

Trial run with BBC

In one high-profile trial of the technology, researchers worked with the BBC to augment ‘Coast,’ a TV series exploring the coastlines of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Producers mapped out a dozen self-guided seaside walks in locations featured in the series. At about 100 points on those routes, camera-phone users could download BBC content explaining the significance of their current locations and directing them to the next tour stop.

In another trial, The Times, a national British newspaper, gave away an HP desktop computer in a contest that players needed to collect three virtual tokens printed in the paper in late August 2005. Contestants could enter either by manually keying in their token numbers or by simply scanning the tokens’ bar codes with their cell phones – the latter, of course, being the less laborious process.

Other experiments

Bristol-based record company Hope Recordings tested the technology by putting bar codes on a new two-CD retrospective, 7 Year Itch, allowing fans to access video clips of musicians. The Watershed, a digital arts center in Bristol, used it to promote an animated film festival.

Researchers who observed and interviewed trial users say they found that code reading lowers the barriers to user engagement compared to conventional phone service access methods. The BBC ‘Coast’ trial, in particular, further showed that well-placed codes lead to situations in which the close relationship between the content and the physical situation felt special to the users.

In the not-too-distant future, researchers believe people will use the technology to download music and video samples, order event tickets, play games, summon taxicabs, get instant in-store discounts and lots more.

Extending the Web

That's not to say that researchers don't have challenges ahead. For one thing, “you can’t just put bar codes anywhere you like,” Kindberg notes. Health and safety regulations sometimes require posting the bar codes higher than some people can easily see or reach with their phones; preservation laws often prohibit the posting of any signs on historic buildings and other landmarks likely to be included on self-guided tours.

In addition, limitations on camera-phone optics outside Japan mean that bar codes must be printed in a large format that some companies will find tough to incorporate into graphic designs. (Japanese camera phones have a macro capability, so codes are much smaller, and therefore easier to blend into artwork.) Also, camera phones won’t read the bar codes if they’re held too far away or at the wrong angle. Finally, the technology currently only works on a few high-end Nokia and Siemens phones.

But Kindberg predicts that the phones will quickly become more sophisticated, more forgiving and more widely available as early as sometime in 2006.

Meanwhile, the technology continues to develop: “We envision it as being extensible the same way the Web is extensible,” he says. In other words, there’s no telling what that cell phone of yours might be able to do next.


Anne Stuart is a Boston-based freelance journalist who has written about business, technology, and the Internet for more than a decade.

Related links

» Project web site (Active Print)
» Researchers win TV award
» Timothy Kindberg
» BBC 'Coast' Mobile Experience

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» The Cooltown User Experience

Tim Kindberg
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