How Semacode Works, Why It’s Important for News Organizations
A couple of tech sites (Epicenter at Wired.com, ReadWriteWeb.com) recently featured stories about Nick Bilton, design integration editor and user interface specialist at The New York Times and the Times Research and Devleopment Lab. They present a panoply of technologies that make the future of news sound like a sure thing, and fun as well.
One technology that may figure into the future of news distribution is object hyperlinking. This just means taking a phonecam picture of a bar code-like image with an encrypted URL in it and having the URL open in your phone browser as soon as you take the picture. You can really use any Webcam and any browser to do the same thing.
There are several encryption methods used to generate the code for these tags. One of the items mentioned in the articles above is a Data Matrix tag called "semacode," a kind of bar code that is a favorite among futurist thinkers, marketing types, Facebook social networkers and artists.
Semacode is a trade name for machine-readable symbols displayed in a grid or matrix. It can take any URL and code it into bar code. The encrypted URL grid is called a "tag." Each of these graphical tags can be photographed with a mobile phone camera (or any Web-connected camera) and then used to navigate to the Web site address.
Semacode isn't the only kind of graphical tag in use today. Wikipedia lists several competing systems, including open standards such as QR Codes, Data Matrix and bar codes -- or proprietary systems like ShotCodes.
When I hear or see semacode, it makes me think of cuecat, a hokey hand-held bar code reader (see photo) that was free for the asking from RadioShack and elsewhere briefly, before it faded from sight but not from mind. Once you connected cuecat to a computer, you could scan most bar codes and the company's URL would open in a browser.
By scanning items in RadioShack's catalog, users would connect to RadioShack's site. A video accompanying the cuecat suggested that TV news could show codes related to stories and allow viewers to customize the news. Radar showing a big storm? Use cuecat to see the local weather on your computer.
The product had a definite commercial bias; scanning bar codes on books didn't bring up the ISBN information for the book, which could have been revolutionary for librarians and researchers.
Cuecat got its owner, Digital Convergence, in the doghouse when privacy concerns were raised. Each device had a unique serial number, which could have enabled Digital Convergence to create a database of what users were cuecatting.
The cuecat experience and semacode are not just techie anecdotes if you are involved in online publishing as a writer or publisher in today's newsroom. News organizations such as NBC TV, Forbes magazine and The Dallas Morning News experimented with cuecat technology in 2000.
You can make yourself a tag today (see sidebar suggestions). Put it on a Web site and add it to your social networking profile. Take photos of it and other tags you find. Playing with technology before you get serious about it is a powerful way to gain the understanding you'll need to make it work for you later.