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Thursday, 14 August 2003

CyberCode and the PhoneCam

New Scientist gave word a few weeks ago of Sony's Gaze-Link. At first glance, it seems designed to solve problems that ZeroConf/Rendezvous already deal with:

The camera-based system, developed by researchers at Sony's Interaction Laboratory in Tokyo, Japan, lets users instantly transfer data from a laptop or handheld computer to a device in close proximity connected to the same wireless network.
"It is so troublesome, especially when there are many networked devices," Yuji told New Scientist. "When you want to send data in your PDA to a printer, for example, you have to input or to select a correct network address."
A code displayed on a small sticker attached to each device is identified by the laptop's camera. Software running on the laptop then automatically locates the device on the network. "Gaze-Link is one of the challenges to make connecting more 'intuitive'," Yuji says.

It seems that Gaze-Link isn't a configuration tool as such, more of an autodiscovery tool, or a point-and-shoot autodiscovery tool, so it's obviously not without its uses. There's a demo video (MPEG, Japanese, 28.1MB) available that provides a better idea of what's going on: the demo involves someone sitting down with a Vaio with a built in camera, pointing it at a desktop and keystrokes being transferred from the former to the latter.In fact, the recognition tags that are stuck on to the devices look eerily similar to those used by Sony's CyberCode software that shipped with the early PictureBook Vaios. It's not a surprise then to see that both Jun Rekimoto and Yuji Ayatsuka were involved with the CyberCode project in the first place, having published a paper on it in 2000. The use of this is, to me, more interesting than the autodiscovery involved in Gaze-Link since CyberCode was initially developed as an augmented reality project.

A lot of Sony's own material about CyberCode seems to have gone missing, as continent-spanning multinationals are wont to slowly let their webservers rot: Rekimoto's own link to a page on CyberCode and the PCG-C1AT points to a defunct document, and neither archive.org or Google seem to have the page cached.

Fortunately, there's a paper [PDF, 2.8MB] available on Sony's site. Here's the abstract:

The CyberCode is a visual tagging system based on a 2Dbarcode technology and provides several features not provided by other tagging systems. CyberCode tags can be recognized by the low-cost CMOS or CCD cameras found in more and more mobile devices, and it can also be used to determine the 3D position of the tagged object as well as its ID number. This paper describes examples of augmented reality applications based on CyberCode, and discusses some key characteristics of tagging technologies that must be taken into account when designing augmented reality environments.

The chief method of tagging envisaged by the authors was that of paper-based printed tags. Paper's cheap, and so is printing: "printed tags are probably the least expensive [compared to RF and IR] and most versatile tagging techonology. They can be easily made by normal printers, can be attached to almost any physical object, and can be recognized by mobile readers."

While I'm not entirely convinced as to the aesthetics of having two dimensional barcodes plastering my favourite gadgets, there's something about the system that appeals to me. The fact that I'd be able to print as many as I wanted, and stick them wherever I want, is a clear benefit over systems like RFID - I'm not sure whether most people have some sort of ubiquitous technology acting as trojan RFID fabs in their houses yet. I expect not.

One of the examples touted by the CyberCode technology was of embedding information about a document when it was printed out: wave the hard copy in front of the camera and the original document would pop up on the screen, ready for editing. While this isn't necessarily a boon for home users--how many documents do you have, exactly, and how much time would you save by waving about a hard copy you had meticulously filed away?--I can certainly see benefits for businesses which have a large investment in hard copies. Unfortunately, most of those businesses are smartly moving away from having anything to do with pulped tree matter and there's a whole plethora of document management and electronic filing/submission solutions available: step forward Adobe Acrobat. That's not to say that CyberCode could augment such a system, of course.

Regardless, Sony's video demo was much more informative than the writeup proffered by New Scientist, which isn't much of a surprise these days. One of the main stumbling blocks with the technology is that it requires at least one device to have a built in camera of sufficient ability to resolve the code in the first place, and--phone cameras notwithstanding--there don't seem to be enough of those about: not laptops, not palmtops and not PDAs. Whether this means Sony are about to release a J2ME asset tag/tracking application for their Sony-Ericsson camera equipped phones that will pull up data on CyberCode tagged objects is left as an exercise to the reader.

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