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I got in a discussion yesterday about visual search. It was in response to BIA/Kelsey’s year-end analyst webinar, in which we outlined the up-and-coming mobile bar code scanning apps.

Essentially, visual search comes in a few different flavors including:

  • QR code readers
  • UPC readers
  • Image processing (i.e., Google Goggles)
  • Augmented reality

Wait For Your Cue

The conversation started about the ill-fated CueCat introduced about 10 years ago. For those unfamiliar, it was an effort to have codes in print media that readers could scan and be taken to a related Web site. The idea is that it adds “actionable” components to what is otherwise impression-based media.

But the lesson was that there were too many moving parts for average consumers, including separate CueCat hardware and the inclination to use it. Similar factors stand in the way of the most recent version of this to hit print media: the QR code.

QR codes are prevalent in Japan in magazines, newspapers, store signage, billboards, etc. In the U.S., some have tried (Yellow Pages, Citysearch, Google). But in order to scan one, you need compatible hardware, software and back-end data, not to mention consumer awareness.

As these things come together, however, it could converge with other areas like social media. Picture scanning a QR code at a restaurant or bar. This would not only provide info on promotions (what Citysearch has done), but could also replace a typed check-in on foursquare or a status update on Twitter.

Focus on the Present

A nearer term opportunity, as we’ve argued, is (UPC) bar code scanning apps. Compared with most other visual search formats, they seem to have a path of lesser resistance. Bar codes themselves are a pervasive and standardized technology and everyone is used to seeing them.

The moving parts are still there (compatible hardware, data, etc.), but they’re coming together faster thanks to popular smartphone apps like RedLaser. And barriers are lessened by product databases that are more readily available.

More importantly, usage requirements are less daunting, and tap into a universal desire to save money (plus some other quirky use cases). This will be chapter one of the visual search game, in which simplicity is the name of the game.

Next up is image processing/search (Google Goggles) and augmented reality. Meanwhile, voice search is also an important area of mobile search development, vaunted yesterday by Google’s Nexus One, whose major funtions are all voice enabled (an entirely separate post … ).

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