From porn shops to your pocket

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Olivier Attia, CEO and founder of ScanBuy, would have preferred to test and perfect his barcode-scanning software for camera phones in more respectable places-say, a big-box electronics retailer.

But when it comes to pushing the limits of technology, there's a secret among tech startups: "The adult business is usually the first to adopt new technology," he said.

Indeed, at the fringes of the burgeoning field of mobile marketing, beyond the clumsy text-messaging applications used by mainstream retailers, the world of adult-entertainment retailers is ahead of the game.

That's why, in those seedy, windowless stores at truck stops and in questionable neighborhoods across America, tech-savvy porn shoppers can use a white-label version of Mr. Attia's patented software technology branded as Leapscan.

By aiming a camera phone at a bar code on a film by Vivid Entertainment Group, the industry's largest content creator, known for such pornographic films as "Man Eater" and "8th Sin" and books like "How to Have a XXX Sex Life," shoppers can download a sneak peek before purchase.

Vivid seems well aware of its quiet role in pushing mobile technology. "This is such an exciting time for technology and as usual the adult sector is leading the way in creating new products and services that will invariably be in common use in a few years," said Steven Hirsch, co-chairman of Vivid in a press release announcing the adoption of LeapScan.

Despite his company's seedy beginnings, Mr. Attia is optimistic about the potential for mainstream use-especially as he looks to the Japanese market for guidance. There, DoCoMo, the giant mobile company, is touting "barcode shopping" tools that allow shoppers to scan a bar code in a magazine and purchase a product from home with one swipe of a phone.

While only a handful of phones are now compatible with his software, eventually shoppers could be empowered in unprecedented ways by using scan phones in stores and linking directly to price-comparison shopping sites to gather real-time data.

The endless advertising possibilities are clearly not lost on the French-born Mr. Attia. Daily he walks through Times Square, blocks from the offices of his 20-person startup on 39th Street that was founded in March 2000 and backed with millions from New York-based venture-capital firm Husdon Ventures. "That's such an unbelievable display of advertising that could be completely interactive for consumers," he said.

Tattooing the future

Mr. Attia has spent the last few months meeting with advertising agencies pitching ScanBuy and said he's been blown away by the creative marketing ideas, even crazy ones: "One advertising executive suggested tattoos as barcodes for dating and matchmaking."

Maybe someday, but Mr. Attia said the first wave of adoption will likely be by movie companies and video-game makers.

How would it work? Just put a barcode on a billboard or magazine ad and anyone with a cellphone camera can scan the barcode and download a trailer to view right in Times Square or on the couch.

Granted, the technology infrastructure isn't there yet for widespread use.

But it's growing fast. According to Forrester Research, only 2.5% of households had camera phones in 2004-but the number rose to 12.8% by the end of the year. Forrester predicts camera phones will reach 76.3 million households by 2010.

Mr. Attia sees barcode scanning as an alternative to RFID technology, another much-ballyhooed technology for one-to-one marketing, particularly since it doesn't come with the baggage of consumer concerns over privacy issues. And then there's the cost difference: RFID tags still run upward of 10ยข. A barcode is a cost already included in printing an ad or manufacturing the packaging for a product.

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