Visual Tags (v-Tags) are not just 2D barcodes

Larry Irons · August 14, 2008 · Short URL:

Semantics matter in Web 2.0

For those who think discussions of semantic value and meaning are pointless, with no relationship to technology adoption, you may want to skip this post.

I first discussed visual tags in 2006. Many people today refer to them as 2d barcodes. However, a crucial difference exists between what things are like and what they in fact are. Calling visual tags (v-Tags) 2d barcodes is like calling YouTube a video database, Flickr a photo database, or a favorites list. Literally, the description is accurate. Functionally, it is meaningless.

Discussions about v-Tags invariably note that the technology is new and not well-known, except by a few early adopters. Using the term 2d barcode to describe the applications this technology affords is one sure way of stretching out the adoption curve rather than speeding it up. Consider the difference between suggesting "let's 2d barcode" a person, place, or thing versus suggesting "let's v-Tag" them or it.

My initial point in discussing this technology innovation was to take note that these v-Tags represent another web 2.0 application stemming from ubiquitous computing. The point was made in relation to Peter Morville's discussion of Findability and the notion, which since became a meme of its own, that entire cities are developing into user interfaces as John Thackara and Malcolm McCullough initially pointed out. Our basic point on visual tagging went as follows:

The metadata necessary for accessing relevant information is largely in the context, the embodied situation of the user.

From the first time I heard the word folksonomy, a key concept to web 2.0, I really liked the concept. The idea of people building metadata about persons, places, and things as they experience them by tagging those experiences in their own terms really seems cool, tight, or whatever terms goes with your demographic, if you appreciate the concept of sociality.

One of the reasons people continue referring to v-Tags as 2d barcodes relates to the fact that no standard exists governing their creation or readability by different scanning software run on various mobile phones. However, the lack of a standard for the hardware and software supporting a specific application of web 2.0 technology doesn't mean we can't be clear about what the application in fact does. Visual tagging is useful in creating social networks around products, augmenting people's experience with places, mobile learning, and transacting eCommerce at websites, among other potential uses.

So far, people creating v-Tags mostly design them to connect the person using a mobile device to a specific url destination for a specific purpose, i.e. transact business, advertise, tell a story, share an experience with a community. However, if we know anything about the way people use technology, one thing that people doing experience design know is that users find their own ways to apply technology, often outside the intentions of the designer. In fact, the interpretive flexibility of web 2.0 is one of its defining features and key to the importance of the folksonomy concept and tagging.

Currently, people create v-Tags with software on personal computers using Google Charts API or some other software, though that way of visually tagging a person, place, or thing isn't the only possible creation technique. Oliver Starr gets directly to the point in "The future of 2-d barcodes" regarding the future potential of v-Tags (which he refers to as 2D barcodes) over at Sprint's PhoneIQ site. Regarding the current restriction that v-Tags are created on computers, he notes:

But the problem is that, again, that’s not a spontaneous act to create your own barcode, and they have software that allows you to even put it on a T-shirt or make stickers or business cards and that’s very cool, but again it requires you to be at a PC, have access to a printer. It's not something where you could take, for example if you had photosensitive paint and your camera could actually take an image with a flash which then created in real time a 2D barcode on a surface because you were just reporting on something related to that area.

However, we don't need to think as far in the future as Starr to envision uses of v-Tags that go beyond a convenient, but controlled, navigation aid to additional information about a person, place, or thing. It is not far-fetched to envision uses of visual tagging that mimic urban graffiti, with people sticking their own v-Tags on objects to add social networking to the point of connection rather than its destination.


Larry writes the blog Skilful Minds.

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