Using Color Codes To Browse the Web

It's an advertiser's dream. Imagine you're sitting in your favorite cafe when something in the business pages catches your eye. That company you're reading about sounds intriguing. So you take out your mobile phone and focus the camera lens on a small splotch of color embedded in the corner of the article. Suddenly the phone's screen is displaying real-time stock prices and up-to-the-minute company headlines.

It's become a truism that the Internet is transforming the way businesses reach their customers. But among advertisers there's a nagging sense that the online world is still too disconnected from more traditional media, like print. For most users, gaining access to the Internet still means sitting in front of a computer and hammering away at a keyboard--a setup far removed from the experience of reading the morning paper or thumbing through a magazine. Advertisers would instead like to give print readers immediate access to the full range of Web-based information. Colorzip Media, a South Korea-based company, is one of the numerous small firms hoping to bridge this divide.

Colorzip's idea is to build on the pros of bar codes while shedding the cons. The intricate structure of bar codes makes them hard to read; scanners have to be close and precise. And if anything else gets in the way--an ad, for example--the scanner can't cope.

A few years ago Korean computer scientists came up with a new kind of code based on color patterns, which can be easily incorporated into company logos or other graphic designs. Colors are much easier for scanners to read, and they help users home in on the content. Colorzip codes have the added advantage of simplicity. Unlike a data-heavy bar code, all a Colorzip code communicates when it's scanned is an index, a pathway to content stored on a server. That links the reading device to the desired content--family photos or a video clip keyed to the 2006 World Cup, say--which then pops up on the screen. Even better, the colors can be read at relatively long distances--say, half a meter away and at poor resolutions. Colorzip codes have already been used on TVs, for example, with viewers voting to express their preferences for the outcome of a show. You focus your phone's camera on a splotch of color in the corner of the screen and press the button; you then find yourself at a Web site. "We're able to put content onto the code to make it attractive," says Christopher Craney, CEO of Colorzip's Japan subsidiary. During a recent shareholders' meeting, the company treated investors to a cake decorated with a code, written in icing, that, when scanned, took users to the company's Web site.

But who goes to the trouble of carrying around a scanner? The answer: 60 percent of mobile-phone users in South Korea and Japan. Their phones come with Quick Response readers, based on a code that's somewhere between bar codes and the version proposed by Colorzip. With some software from Colorzip, users can zap everything from specially made Colorzip postage stamps issued by the postal service to T shirts or caps marked with jazzy graphics, and be directed to a Web site.

The technology has a drawback. Because the codes can be photographed or copied, they might be susceptible to hacking. For that reason the technology may not be suited to transactions where money changes hands. But the color codes may presage a day when the combination of user-friendly codes and the Google-sifted Net universe opens up myriad possibilities.