Tools & Toys

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There are plenty of consumers who think convergence simply means multimedia entertainment, but people in marketing and advertising know better. Sure, the internet can be a great resource for in-depth information, focused research or aimless browsing, but above all it's about shopping. If convergence means bringing the power of print, television and the internet together to make a vast selling machine, the company that can harness all three has a real killer app on its hands. Enter the Dallas-based Digital Convergence Corp. ( and a weird little device called the CueCat (

The CueCat uses a cat-shaped bar code scanner that attaches to the computer through the keyboard connection on the PC (a Mac version is on the way). Hooking up the CueCat and loading the software is as easy as adding a mouse to the system. It worked for me on the first try. Users can scan bar codes in magazines, on coupons or on any packaged item, and up pops a linked web page. The device also has a "convergence" connection; a cable that connects the PC and the TV via the audio-out connector on the TV and the audio-in on the PC. In the case of television, the CueCat software responds to an audio `ping' when content is broadcast carrying the Cue symbol. If users aren't interested in turning to the web page at the exact moment the Cue sign comes up, the computer stores the URLs for later access. On paper, it sounds like a pretty slick and inexpensive way to get TV interactivity. However, I never happened across any scannable TV content.

In fact, Digital Convergence is still building infrastructure and signing up customers for the service. The device is being distributed gratis at Radio Shack stores, and A.T. Cross is launching the Cross Convergence pen that lets users scan and save Cue addresses so they can download them later. But it's not just about cans and coupons. Bar-coded editorial content is in the works, from Digital Convergence partners like Wired, Forbes and Parade. They'll offer CueCat scanners to their readers and carry CueCat-swipeable ads. The advantage to advertisers is clear: CueCat gives them a means of tracking responses that's more effective and more informative than reader-response cards, special offers or any "call us for information" plea.

But at the present time, this is all a bit academic. True, swiping the bar codes on the few CueCat-accessible print ads currently available, or scanning the surfeit of goods like soda and soup cans, potato chip bags and paperback novels works like a charm. In almost every case, I got a fast response from the CueCat software, which is always on and resident in Windows, and I_was zipped immediately to a website. Dr Pepper was kind enough to offer me a free TV if I answered a few questions. The other URLs didn't seem to know what to do with me; I was just another visitor at their standard website.

But what's in it for consumers, besides possibly a cheap TV? Digital Convergence's accompanying_infomercial-style video tells us our fingers won't get tired typing URLs. Oh, please. Yes, there are times when we might like to learn more about a product or service, but so far we're not seeing bar codes on those ads, and do we really need a special scanner just to get to the information?

OK, what's in it for the advertisers? Easy, targeted access to consumers. Digital Convergence, of course, swears that the personal profile they compile on users during the registration process will never be released without permission. This privacy vs. customized-marketing issue and its possible legislative consequences are messier than a litter box. But what may be of greater concern to Digital Convergence is simply that the novelty of scanning bar codes and ads can wear off quickly - and consumers will be stuck with a gadget whose appeal has faded as fast as the Hula Hoop's.

Unless people are given genuinely useful information, discounts or freebies when they access a website, they're not going to go to the trouble to scan bar codes any more than they click on banner ads. But if there were scads of bar-coded ads to click on, and scads of specialized subsites to zip to, CueCat might one day be purring like a kitten.

The latest piece of good news for Digital Convergence is that Verizon has agreed to internet-enhance its phone directories with the bar codes, known as CRQ technology. The CueCat-ready Yellow Pages is expected to debut in the Dallas area in February.

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