May 4, 2000
Scan the Headlines? No, Just the Bar Codes
Encoding Technologies for Newspapers and Magazines Link Printed Page to Web Page
By LISA GUERNSEY
eaders of The Post and Courier, the
daily newspaper in Charleston, S.C.,
may have noticed something peculiar
about their paper this week. Tiny black
marks, no wider or higher than a five-letter
word in a news column, have been appearing throughout the pages since Monday.
There is one under the weather map, another on the masthead, still more at the top
of the business and local sections.
These little symbols, which at first glance
appear to be nothing more than smudges,
provide a direct link between the newspaper
and the Internet. Each mark is a miniature
Universal Product Code for a Web address.
When those U.P.C.'s, or bar codes, are read
by a handheld scanner connected to a computer, a Web page pops up on the screen.
The bar code under the weather map, for
example, takes readers to the weather page
on the newspaper's Web site.
Wade Spees for The New York Times
JUST A SMUDGE - A tiny bar code takes Post and Courier readers to the Web.
Alan H. Seim, director of Internet operations at The Post and Courier, considers the
bar codes a much-needed solution to a problem that newspapers and their readers have
been facing since the dawn of the Web: the
awkwardness of printing and typing (let
alone remembering) a new Web address.
"You just beep on this thing and you're
there," Mr. Seim said.
But the tiny bar codes are more than just
a print-based replacement for long Web
addresses. They are one of several new
technologies that create hyperlinks for the
physical world, establishing a direct connection between static objects and the ever-changing Internet. With these links, magazines, books, postcards, product packages --
any imaginable artifacts with room for bar
codes -- could become on-ramps to Web
pages that offer related reports, movies,
sound clips or online order forms.
The Post and Courier is the first newspaper in the country to experiment with the
miniature-bar-code technology. This month,
Charleston residents who sign up as testers
will receive free handheld scanners so they
can activate the bar codes and jump
straight to the corresponding Web sites.
GoCode, the Charleston company that developed the technology, will also put the codes
in several catalogs in the next few months,
and more free handheld scanners will be
By summer, observant readers of Wired
magazine and Popular Mechanics may spot
another version of these offline links. For
them, the mark will not be a smudgelike bar
code but a small logo with an uppercase
"D" lurking on the lower outside corner of
some pages. The D stands for Digimarc, a
company that has developed a way to embed nearly imperceptible digital watermarks in printed text and photographs.
When held up to a Webcam perched on a
monitor, the watermarks tell the computer
to display related Web pages.
In June, Digimarc will offer free software
that can be downloaded and integrated with
software for the Webcams. By summer's
end, company officials say, most Webcam
manufacturers will have integrated the Digimarc software into their products. The
company, meanwhile, is hoping to have
signed contracts with more than 100 magazines that will use the watermarks.
Bar codes of other shapes and sizes may
also dot the pages of print publications soon.
Belo, a media company in Dallas, announced that it would incorporate bar codes
into some of the pages of its newspapers,
which include The Dallas Morning News
and The Providence Journal in Rhode Island. A bar code reader developed by DigitalConvergence.:Com, a hyperlink company, will be distributed to read those symbols
and translate them into Web pages that
appear on the screen.
Belo's 17 television stations are also considering a version of the technology that
uses sounds instead of symbols. To open a
Web page, a television program could emit
an audible tone that would send a signal to a
computer that was connected to the television via audio cables.
Those who have experimented with off
line links say that they have potential to
change the way people approach the Web.
Until now, people who see a printed Web
address have had to jot it down, tear out the
corresponding page or try to remember the
Web site's top-level domain name so they
can search the site later. And once they
remember to visit the sites, they often have
to dig through multiple Web pages to find
what they want. According to Internet analysts, most people give up after three or four
But with digital watermarks or bar codes,
a printed page will have "embedded intelligence," said Guy Creese, a senior analyst at
the Aberdeen Group, a strategic consulting
company. Mr. Creese saw a demonstration
of Digimarc's technology a month ago.
"It strikes me as an intriguing way to
handle the information overload problem,"
Mr. Creese said. "It really brings impulse
buying and searching to a new level."
Anything that increases the possibility of
impulse buying is bound to attract advertisers. Ford Motor Company, for example, is
preparing to include Digimarc's technology
in full-page advertisements in both Wired
and Popular Mechanics. At least 10 other
advertisers, including Visa and Sony, are
also planning to test the technology.
But before offline linking enters the mainstream, it must clear a hardware hurdle.
Handheld scanners or Webcams will have to
become as ubiquitous as computers, analysts say. GoCode is trying to make that
happen by giving away scanners that are
sponsored by advertisers and that will come
with buttons that take users to the sponsors'
Web sites. DigitalConvergence.:Com has a
similar idea. And Digimarc is hoping that
the growing popularity of Webcams will
give it an edge.
But even if people have the right equipment, companies face another problem:
getting people to make the technology part
of their routine.
"The downside is that you have to teach
someone to use it," said David Cooperstein,
a research director at Forrester Research,
after seeing a demonstration of GoCode's
technology. People will have to be shown
that the bar code "is not just a smudge on
the page," he said.
Mr. Seim, of The Post and Courier, is
aware of those issues. But his newspaper is
prepared to take on the challenge in exchange for the chance to offer a cutting-edge
service to its readers. A regional paper with
a daily circulation of 110,000, The Post and
Courier has been trying with mixed success
to integrate the newspaper and its Web site.
Most of the stories on the site, Mr. Seim said,
are "shovelware," digital versions of exactly what appears in the paper.
But with the advent of the bar codes, the
newspaper has more incentive to include
updated news and weather reports on its
Web site. While printed Uniform Resource
Locators, or U.R.L.'s, have always given
ambitious readers an invitation to the Web
site, the bar codes provide a much easier
way to make the connection, Mr. Seim said.
With a scanner in hand, going to the Web
becomes part of the reading experience.
Building bridges to speed
travel between the
physical and the virtual
"The goal is to keep the readers involved
with you and your site," Mr. Seim said.
"People might like to find out, for example,
what happened with Elián González since
the time the page was printed."
Classified advertising is another area of
the newspaper that will take advantage of
the technology. Mr. Seim hopes that the
paper's staff will soon start using software
that will automatically convert new U.R.L.'s
to bar codes during the production process.
(He now uses static bar codes that are set
for specific Web sites.) Once that happens,
the classified advertising section will be
specked with the bar codes. A two-line pitch
about a used car could immediately link to
the seller's Web site, complete with photographs, references and details about the
car's maintenance record.
Popular Mechanics is planning to add
more timely content to its Web site to take
advantage of the digital watermarks that
will first appear in its August issue. Jay
McGill, the magazine's publisher, said he
expected at least three or four feature articles, as well as nearly a dozen advertisements, to have the watermarks embedded
For example, the magazine has been running a monthly column about the progress
of a Nascar racing team. By the time the
magazine is published, the columns are out
of date because magazine writers usually
work several weeks ahead of publication
dates. But once the column is embedded
with an offline link, it can transport people
directly to the Web site of the magazine,
which will start offering weekly updates.
"We think it will change the dynamic of
how we edit the magazine and relationships
with our readers," Mr. McGill said. He
added that when he first saw the technology
and observed how fast Web pages opened
after simply holding the magazine up to the
Webcam, "I just went, Wow, we have to
Wade Spees for The New York Times
At The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., Alan Seim, left, head of Internet operations, and Larry Tarleton, associate publisher, have added go-to-the-Web bar codes.
Mr. McGill added, however, that in addition to the requirement of Webcams, offline
links are burdened with another drawback:
people have to take the magazines to their
computers to gain access to the Web sites.
Still, some analysts are optimistic that
advances in wireless technology in the next
year will make the concept viable. If the bar
codes and watermarks could be scanned
and stored by a wireless device instead of by
a scanner or Webcam tethered to the computer, they would be more useful.
Better yet, if the marks could be scanned
by a device that talked to a personal digital
assistant with wireless Internet service,
people could gain access to the sites they
were reading about while there were on the
subway -- or on the couch.
"Getting this bolted into a P.D.A. makes a
lot of sense," said Mr. Creese, of the Aberdeen Group.
Regardless of how the technology
emerges, the founders of the companies
creating offline links are envisioning broader applications for their products. Bruce
Davis, chief executive and president of Digimarc, said that he was working toward a
day when digital watermarks would be embedded in books, CD's, bank cards and direct mail.
T. B. Pickens, the founder of GoCode, has
begun distributing business cards that contain his bar code. By the end of the month,
people who receive his card and scan the
code will be able to import his contact
information directly into Outlook, Microsoft's address book, with one click. Even
more personal data, like credit card numbers and a shipping address, are also embedded in the bar code for Mr. Pickens's
use. He unlocks the sensitive data by scanning his business card and then scanning a
house key that features a sticker with a
corresponding bar code. When both are
scanned together, Mr. Pickens can fill in
online order forms with a few clicks.
I.B.M. and Palm Computing are also testing the prospects of offline links. The companies are working with a Safeway grocery
store in England that has provided Palm
P.D.A.'s equipped with built-in scanners to
more than 500 of its customers. When the
customers scan the bar codes on the packages of any products they are running out of
-- whether soup cans or cereal boxes -- the
computer adds those products to digital
grocery lists. The system uses the Internet
to send each list to Safeway, where employees collect and package the products so they
can be picked up by the customer.
For now, though, officials at The Post and
Courier say they are excited to be one of the
first publications trying out the technology,
even if it means that their newspaper is
specked with tiny black rectangles.
"We think it could be a breakthrough on
how to connect the reader of the printed
word to the Internet," said Larry Tarleton,
associate publisher of The Post and Courier.
"And a lot of people are trying to figure that