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5/1/2001 | 4 MINUTE READ

Dot Commentary: The CueCat's Meow

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Last fall, a company called Digital Convergence began giving away hundreds of thousands of hand-held scanners through partnerships with RadioShack, Wired magazine and Forbes.


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Last fall, a company called Digital Convergence began giving away hundreds of thousands of hand-held scanners through partnerships with RadioShack, Wired magazine and Forbes. The device, called a CueCat, allows users to scan bar codes from magazines and products, and instantly view information about those products on the World Wide Web.

If you can get past the scanner's phallic appearance (it's supposed to look like a cat, but more than a few of my colleagues erupted into laughter when seeing the device for the first time) it's actually a pretty neat little gadget with a lot of potential. Digital Convergence is banking on this potential. The Dallas-based firm plans to put 50 million CueCats into homes by the end of this year.

How It Works

When a user scans a bar code from a magazine ad or a product such as a book or soda can, that bar code is compared against others found within a massive database. When it finds a match, the user's web browser is directed where to go online for additional information. The idea is that users will be provided with product-specific information immediately, without having to key in a URL or perform a search for the product in question.

Some Major Limitations

When I first received my CueCat, I swiped dozens of bar codes, but found that I was directed to useful information only about 60% of the time. If you scan in a bar code that doesn't match up to any code in the Digital Convergence database, you are routed to Digital Convergence's web site, where you're asked to enter information about the product you just scanned so that it might be added to the database.

While the CueCat technology has been available for about seven months, it hasn't exactly caught fire with magazines, or their readers. Aside from Wired and Forbes (both of whom shipped out free CueCats to their subscribers), few publications are employing the technology in their ads. Forbes, which last year shipped out 850,000 scanners last fall, recently reported that only 100,000 readers have used the technology to date.

Another strike against the CueCat is its limited mobility, due to the fact that it must be connected to your PC in order to work. I'm less prone to read magazines at my desk than I am in my living room, at the doctor's office, or even in the bathroom. And since my wife won't let me install a PC in our bathroom, I must resort to carrying the items I want to scan back to my PC, which isn't always an option (the nurses at my doctor's office are VERY protective of the waiting room magazines). Most of the time, it's not worth the effort.

One of the biggest obstacles that the CueCat must overcome involves privacy. Every CueCat is tagged with a unique identification number that can be tracked back to your online registration. As a result, each time you scan a bar code, you are providing Digital Convergence with key information about your purchasing habits. (To be fair, it should be noted that since these concerns were first raised last year, Digital Convergence has incorporated a privacy warning into the installation process and has revised its privacy policy.)

Future Potential

As it stands right now, the CueCat is not as practical as it is gimmicky. Most users tend to install it, play with it for a couple of days, and then forget about it as I did. But there is potential, especially in how it might be used by industries like ours in the future.

Since bar codes can be found on almost any product, it is conceivable that the CueCat could someday play an increased role in inventory and commerce. When a finisher runs low on supplies, he/she could simply scan the container and new supplies would be ordered automatically. But let's take it a step further. It might even be possible to scan a bar code from a product, and be instantly provided with a list of distributors offering that product at various prices.

The mobility issue could best be addressed by incorporating the CueCat's functionality into Personal Digital Assistants (e.g., Palm Pilot, Visor, etc.). You could then exchange contact information with other PDA users by simply scanning their PDA (a step up from the awkward infrared "beaming" process currently employed). And for those of us who attend industry trade shows, consider this: Maybe the day will come when instead of lugging around bags filled with product literature, we can simply scan a bar code from an exhibitor's booth and download their product information from the Internet when we get home. (Digital Convergence has taken a step in this direction, partnering with Cross Pens to produce a battery-operated pen that doubles as a bar code scanner. The pen can store up to 300 web addresses at a time and retails for around $90).

While I don't pretend to know whether the CueCat will go the way of the 8-track, I will go on record as saying that I don't think that it can succeed as a stand-alone marketing device. But if the technology can be modified so as to make it a peripheral to more useful tools, I'd say its got a fighting chance.