Sometimes Free Is Still Too Expensive

That's how Jim Louderback felt about the Cue:Cat, and that's how he feels about the latest scanning concept: the new "Aura" project from Microsoft Research.

Remember the Cue:Cat? A handheld scanner designed to read squished-up bar codes in magazines, truckloads of them were given away by Radio Shack back in the late nineties. The idea was that youd connect the Cue:Cat to your PC, and then use it to scan a barcode while reading a magazine or newspaper. That scan would fire up a browser on your PC, and take you to a Web site with more information about the article, advertiser or publication.

Back then I was not impressed. I think I might have called it "the worst product ever" at one point and "sometimes even free is too expensive." The trouble was that those bar codes, whether printed onto a label or squished into a magazine, were just too hard to scan. Plus it missed the whole point of how people consume printed material. They typically dont do it within a three-foot radius of the home PC—unless they live in a tiny studio apartment in Manhattan.

The idea was mostly sound—objects should have intelligence about themselves, including what they are, where they came from and what they contain. And tracking that info on a computer makes sense too. But a handheld scanner—whether tethered or not—and requiring average users to play "checkout clerk" just doesnt fly.

Proving that bad ideas never really die, here comes Microsoft Research with a "new" project called Aura. A PocketPC outfitted with a bar-code scanner and Wi-Fi card replaces the cutesey tethered scanner, but the song remains the same. See something interesting? Swipe it with your scanner, and then use the Net to collect related factoids—including user reviews, commentary, etc. Put your own comments up there too—in what Microsoft calls "autoblogging."

Microsoft expects the Aura client to run on all sorts of devices, including cell phones and single-function scanners (perhaps shaped like a cat?), and using many different types of wireless networks, including cellular and Wi-Fi.

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Read our news story for more about how Aura works.

But heres the problem—and heres what makes Aura just another misguided waddle down the Cue:Cat cow path: It requires users to actually scan bar codes. And that just wont work.

Have you been to Home Depot lately? The one near my house is always packed—from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. To keep up, they recently added a few "self service" check-out stands. Customers are expected to hand-scan their purchases, swipe a credit card and then quickly be on their way.

But "quick" is not the first word that came to mind recently when I stood in the self-service line. One guy scanned the same widget about 10 times—and then paid for every one of them. Another guy took literally 20 minutes to figure out the delicate interplay between scan, bag and swipe—hed be there still if I hadnt taken pity on him and executed the transaction for him. This was not an isolated incident—Ive been to Home Depot a lot over the past few months, and each time stopped to wonder at the long lines of befuddled customers, trying to catch a self-service break.

Once RFID tags have been embedded in everything, the scanning problem will go away. That assumes, of course, that well be able to embed a tag in a screw. But even without scanning, the concept of blogging about bolts or batteries eludes me.

Sure, if its a big enough purchase—like a dishwasher or plasma TV—it would be nice to have reviews and specs in your hands as you wander through Best Buy. But will that justify buying a wireless scanner/blogger/browser? I think not. Eventually well be able to pass our cell phones over a TV and get vital stats—like Dr. McCoy did with that gizmo on Star Trek before uttering the famous words, "Hes dead, Jim."

But until then, keep your Cue:Cat, Aura, scanner, whatever away from me. Americans are not a nation of scanners. Were not going to haul around our own personal bar-code readers to Home Depot or Safeway just to discover what Phred in Philly thinks of Charmin bathroom tissues, while standing in the toilet paper aisle.

Next page: The darker reason behind Aura.