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Tech giant will put the 2-D technology in videogames, on posters, even on Kobe Bryant.
Two-dimensional bar codes are one of those futuristic technologies that always seem to be on the brink of a breakthrough, but never make it.
Promotion from Microsoft ( MSFT - news - people ), one of the biggest technology companies in the world, could help. Starting this fall, the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant plans to incorporate bar codes into its Xbox videogames as part of a broad marketing initiative. "[Bar codes] enable advertisers to continue their conversations with consumers across any media [whether] posters, book covers, store displays or screens," says Mark Kroese, general manager of entertainment and devices advertising for Microsoft.
The codes, which are sometimes called QR codes for "quick response," are a sibling technology to the familiar bar codes found on product packaging. 2-D bar codes, however, store data in two dimensions, letting them stash more data than regular bar codes, including information like Web site and e-mail addresses.
Here's how it works: People scan or "snap" the codes with a cellphone camera. The phone's browser then activates and is automatically directed to a designated Web site linked to the code.
Though popular in Japan, where they are viewed as a simple way to pay bills and download videos, 2-D bar codes remain a very niche technology in the U.S.
Could Microsoft nudge bar codes into the mainstream? The company has been interested in the technology for some years. In 2006, it debuted a 2-D bar code product called Windows Live Barcode designed to seamlessly transfer information between computers, billboards and magazines, and mobile devices running its Windows Mobile software.
The next year, Microsoft's research team unveiled a new kind of code known as the High Capacity Color Barcode (HCCB), composed of small, brightly colored triangles in geometric patterns. The changes allowed the size of the tags to be reduced while increasing the amount of information storage and opened the technology to a wider variety of phones, including models with lower-end cameras and lenses, the company says.
The technology didn't take off, but Microsoft kept refining it. At the annual Consumer Electronics Show this past January, the company showed a new product called "Microsoft Tag," based on HCCB. A promotional video called the technology a simple, fast way to "link real life to the digital world." Unlike other codes, Microsoft's tags don't contain information within their code; instead, they act as links to data stored on Microsoft's servers. The structure allows tag creators, such as marketers, to track tag activity.
To encourage consumers to create and use tags, Microsoft also released "TagReader" software compatible with several types of cellphones, including Apple's ( AAPL - news - people ) iPhones, Research In Motion's ( RIMM - news - people ) BlackBerrys, Nokia ( NOK - news - people ) Symbian devices and Windows Mobile handsets.
This April, Microsoft fine-tuned the tag technology one more time, adding an option to swap the triangles for dots. The change enables tag creators to better customize the codes' appearance. The dotted tags resemble pointillist images instead of triangle-packed grids. (The tag technology is still technically in beta as Microsoft tweaks it based on usage data and customer feedback.)
Despite Microsoft's efforts and inclusion in promotions from Hardee's and General Mills ( GIS - news - people ), its tags haven't caught on broadly. Microsoft's Xbox implementation will be the first tag embedded in a videogame in the U.S.
A pilot held at Wal-Mart ( WMT - news - people ) earlier this year gave Microsoft confidence in the technology, says Kroese. To publicize the release of an Xbox game called "Halo Wars," the retailer created tag-enabled store displays. Consumers who scanned or "snapped" the tags with their phones were taken to a special Web site where they could pre-order the game and get freebies like ringtones. Microsoft found that 85% of the people who visited the site ended up downloading content onto their phone.
Games are a natural place to put tags, says Kroese. "You've got people who are really engaged, leaning on the edge of their seats ... a tag campaign presents advertising in a way that lets gamers "stay in the moment," he says.
The technology will appear in most of the 10 Xbox titles Microsoft plans to release this fall. Advertisers include operator Sprint Nextel ( S - news - people ), which will use tags in a campaign on Xbox LIVE.
Gamers are likely to see the tags in the same places they currently see regular ads. In a first-person sports game, for instance, players might see a billboard or a banner on the side of racetrack with a tag. Snapping a tag with their phone will yield some kind of reward, such as an outtakes reel of a movie, a phone wallpaper or entrance into a sweepstakes or contest. The bonus could also relate to the game, such as a clue, extra gamer points or special admittance to a secret level.
"There's a currency system that gamers understand, such as points, achievement and secret levels," says Kroese. "We want the tags to be part of the fun instead of a blatant interruption."
Tags won't be limited to new games. Using an in-game advertising platform developed by Microsoft's subsidiary, Massive, marketers could place ads with tags in existing games.
Nor are tags limited to game play. Microsoft plans to put them on game marketing materials, including packaging and posters, and even incorporate them into the release of Windows 7 in late October. A spokeswoman for Microsoft's Tag product team says several companies outside the tech industry will roll out tag campaigns later this year. Procter & Gamble ( PG - news - people ) will employ the technology to promote its Head & Shoulders shampoo, and an unnamed "leading car manufacturer" will use tags in store brochures. The most creative use may be a T-shirt designed for basketball player Kobe Bryant. Fans will be able to snap Bryant's tag-enabled shirt to learn more about the athlete.
Says Kroese: "Tags take everything advertisers are doing and turbocharge it."
by Elizabeth Woyke
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