Reality Bytes

by Tunde Cockshott, Creative Consultant,

Extending The Internet Into Everyday Objects

What’s the difference between the internet and real life? That’s a question that we’re still a generation away from having to answer. (Hopefully!) But, real and virtual are already holding hands and we can only expect the relationship to blossom very soon.

Just think – we can already use scanning applications like RedLaser to scan bar codes of products in physical shops and perform live cost comparisons. We can pull data from Wikipedia and user review sites and then view them in location-aware applications like Cyclopaedia, Layar and Yelp which present results as an augmented reality layer over a real world view.

To Coin A Phrase

So what’s next? Well, here we’re looking at ‘The Internet of Things’. Coined back in 1999, this term refers to extending the internet beyond the electronic world, ‘internet-ifying’ traditionally dumb objects: books, food packaging, clothing, in fact any object. It may sound far-fetched on the face of it, but in reality, the technology is already here and already very familiar to many people.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags (the things that make Oyster Cards work, are used as individual timer mechanisms in large-scale running races and security tags in stores) are tiny identifiers that carry information about the object they are attached to. They can be traced, read by sensors and smart objects will be able to modify their behaviour accordingly.

The inevitable ubiquity of RFID tags (there are still substantial technical issues to overcome: readers as standard in phones for one – although Apple is rumoured to be including a reader in its next iPhone) will give rise to a new form of marketing and communications opportunities. We have already carried simple experiments enabling objects with embedded tags to perform functions like presenting product detail, initiating search queries and starting video chats when passed over a reader.

Imagine something as simple as passing a box of eggs over your reader (in your laptop, your phone…) and getting information about where they came from, how organic they are, how far they’ve travelled, recipes even… a whole new world of customer experience.

Turning Japanese

Bar codes have been around for a long time and can only carry limited information; however, the next generation – QR codes (a two-dimensional bar code carrying information like URLs) are already very popular in Japan. QR code readers are standard functionality on all phones in Japan and their use has been widely integrated into daily life where they store URLs, business card information, phone numbers, competition entry forms, marketing messages and the like… this ability to bridge the gulf between the real and virtual is very exciting.

In the west their use has not yet taken off – due to the lack of QR readers as standard features on phones and the lack of QR codes in the environment.

The situation is continually changing, in early December last year; Google announced that it is sending QR code display marketing to 10,000 local businesses across the US. These are the businesses that have been the most sought-out and researched on and Google Maps. Scanning the QR code on a phone will deliver reviews, coupons and star ratings.

In times past, it has been an uphill struggle to get mobile phone users to make use of anything other than the standard features on their devices, even though they offered much more.

However, the iPhone and other application-rich phones have changed all this – ease of use, an intuitive UI and the richness of apps available has changed habits and expectations – so the leap to the Internet of Things isn’t quite as far as was previously thought.

There’s still a way to go – issues about privacy, in particular, but the potential for every product to become not only a real world touchpoint but a informed bridge to the digital world will have great impacts on how brands communicate with their consumers.