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long time ago in a galaxy far, far away - the 1980s - a magazine ad for Honeywell International Inc. asked, "What the Heck is Electronic Mail?" to readers befuddled by the idea of missives that traveled over highways of electrons instead of concrete. Today, e-mail is almost as ho-hum as the office fax machine, even though it initially hit the business world with the impact of a meteor from outer space.

Last month we showed you a trio of technologies that are making a similar Commodore-sized impact on our industry. In this month's installment, we offer three more techno tools that are transforming the exhibit world as dramatically as the personal computer and the Internet once did. In fact, they prove Arthur C. Clarke, the author of "2001: A Space Odyssey," was right on the money when he said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Bar codes have come a long way since they were first used to track shipments on railroad cars nearly 50 years ago. But the familiar black parallel lines set against a white background have evolved into something as far removed from those early bar codes as rocket ships are from railroad cars themselves. The best known and most widespread of these second-generation 2-D bar codes include Quick Response (QR) codes, Microsoft Tags, and SnapTags.

Invented in 1994 by Toyota Motor Corp. subsidiary Denso Wave Inc. to monitor the car maker's inventory of auto parts, QR codes are a method of encoding information such as images, text messages, and websites. Consisting of black lines and rectangles arranged in a two-dimensional, maze-like pattern on a square, white background, a QR code can hold up to 90 different types of alphanumeric characters horizontally and vertically. This latest update of the commonplace symbol can store several hundred times more data than the original-recipe bar code of the 1960s.

The codes can be quickly accessed by reading them through a dedicated bar-code reader or, more likely, through a cell-phone camera outfitted with a bar-code-scanning app, such as i-nigma. The information encoded will then appear on your phone's screen.

Launched in 2009, Microsoft Corp.'s Tags are perhaps the best known alternative to the ubiquitous QR codes. Used by a broad range of companies from Kraft Foods Inc. to Simon & Schuster Inc., Tags run the same size as QR codes, but are filled with triangles or dots that can include color, as well as an image, such as a company logo. While Tags can only be read with the proprietary Microsoft Tag Reader app, they otherwise work the same way as their QR cousins: Once you scan the Tag with the app, you can access websites, videos, audio files, text, and the like.

Another recent riff on QR codes, SnapTags come with some innovative twists. Introduced by Denver-based SpyderLynk Inc. in 2011, SnapTags employ a single circle instead of multiple rectangles to encode data. Inside that ring, companies can place their logo or another image, similar to Microsoft Tags. Used in promotions by heavyweights like Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. and The Coca-Cola Co., SnapTags differentiate themselves in two significant areas. First, users can access them through the proprietary SnapTag Reader app after downloading it to their smart phone via iTunes or the Android Market. However, if users don't have a smart phone (or are just reluctant to download the app) they can take a picture of the SnapTag with their phone's camera, then text the photo to a number provided on the SnapTag image (or e-mail a message to a given address), and access the material being offered.

How fast is it taking off?

Appearing on every imaginable surface from Rubik's Cubes and Absolut vodka bottles to tattoos and tombstones, QR codes have grown globally by more than 300 percent just since July 2010, according to QR Code News, a website specializing in 2-D mobile bar codes. Further research from QR Code News found that 22 percent of Fortune 500 companies now employ the square bar codes as well. On the consumer side, Forrester Research Inc. discovered that 15 percent of smart-phone owners now have a scanning app, triple the number who had one in 2010. Moreover, Forrester discerned the rate at which consumers are using such apps has increased 500 percent from 2010 to 2011.

"QR codes let exhibitors offer attendees more information in more convenient, and more Green, ways," says Robert Sneed, vice president of multimedia technologies for Dimensional Communications Inc., an exhibit house in Northvale, NJ. "They become another tool to expand your offerings and engage with people - without the cost of adding more staff or booth space."

How are exhibitors using it?

The challenge of enticing attendees to visit your booth is a puzzling one. But that wasn't the case for Interlinkone Inc. When the Wilmington, MA-based marketing company wanted to drive traffic to its exhibit at the Digital Solutions Cooperative Annual Conference (Dscoop) in Chicago, the company broke the code - by using a code. Attendees walking into the print-industry show encountered a 4-by-2-foot floor decal emblazoned with the question "What's this?" referring to a large QR code printed on top of the query, along with instructions on how to scan it. Those who scanned the code discovered a video of Jason Pinto, the company's project manager, who welcomed attendees, gave out Interlinkone's booth number, and issued a quick summary of how its software programs could cure their marketing maladies.

Once inside the company's 10-by-10-foot booth, visitors were greeted by staff clad in black T-shirts with QR codes on the front. Staffers invited the guests to gobble down cookies whose wrappers were also marked with QR codes. When guests scanned the T-shirts and cookies, the codes whisked them to a mobile-optimized version of the company's website.

Samsung "Venue Readiness Guide"

Microsoft Surface Getting Started page

Microsoft Surface Case Studies

Microsoft Surface Channel on YouTube

TouchTable Inc.

Circle Twelve Inc.

Similarly, a provider of security software, Portland, OR-based Tripwire Inc., turned to QR codes to build brand awareness at the 2011 RSA Conference in San Francisco. Assisted by VMC Group. Inc., an exhibit house out of Toronto, Tripwire decided to be as open as Wikileaks. It started its come-one, come-all effort with two separate inserts in 5,000 attendees' bags at the computer-security show. The first insert was a 5-inch-square card with a QR code printed on it. Once recipients scanned the code, they were taken to a Tripwire-branded microsite containing product info and directions to the exhibit. The card's flip side beckoned attendees with the enticement of an in-booth, lottery-like drawing for prizes.

When guests stepped into the 30-by-20-foot booth, a nearby 10-foot video screen snapped to life. Linked to two motion-sensing infrared cameras attached to overhead banners, the screen flashed a QR code when someone triggered its sensors. Visitors could then scan the code to see what prize they had won, from branded T-shirts and gift cards to iPod Shuffles and iPads. Everybody who visited the booth won at least a T-shirt, which came with yet another QR code printed on the front. Once you scanned it, the message that appeared on your phone riffed off the company's "Take Control" tagline, such as "Control Freak" and "Data Thieves Stole my Shirt."

The second QR-enabled bag insert served as a ticket to the conference's closing-night soiree, while the ac-companying QR code functioned as
a ticket in a drawing for a Vespa.

Using software by BeQRious.com to measure how the QR codes were used, Tripwire found that nearly 340 people scanned the first bagged insert, and roughly 4,300 (almost 25 percent of the conference's 18,000 attendees) scanned the in-booth video-wall code for a prize. Those are some pretty big results for an exhibitor with such a small footprint.

Where can I find out more?

Start with general resources such as "Mobile barcodes: the insider's guide with Laura Marriott" for a readable introduction to the fast-growing field. QR Code News, a website/blog with news on 2-D bar codes, offers profiles of companies incorporating bar codes, and links to useful resources such as free QR-code readers for your phone and QR-code generators you can use for your exhibit or event.

Denso Wave, the code's inventor, offers a website with historical background, case studies, and a handy FAQ section. And Tim Patterson, the head of social-media outreach for Interpretive Exhibits Inc. in Salem, OR, offers his "QR Code Trade Show Marketing Guide" free online, where you'll find not only a beginner's guide to QR codes, but marketing ideas and tips on how to place them for more accurate scanning. In addition, the Mobile Marketing Association's website supplies a variety of technical and promotional know-how on QR.

Coined by an engineer at The Boeing Co. in 1990, the term "augmented reality" (AR) refers to a merging of the physical and virtual worlds. In AR, your view of real-world elements is enhanced by computer-generated sounds or visuals, such as the familiar yolk-colored "first down" line seen in broadcasts of football games on TV, or restaurant locations in your vicinity viewed through a cell phone's camera and screen when working with an AR app, such as the Layar Reality Browser. Generally used to enhance a product or location with an overlay of data (from popular reference sources such as Wikipedia, or crowd-sourced content such as Yelp reviews or Flickr photos), AR can be employed through a variety of media, including TVs, PCs, smart phones, and tablet PCs.

How fast is it taking off?

Several barometers attest to AR's viral-like popularity. Oyster Bay, NY-based technology-research firm Allied Business Intelligence Inc. (ABI) projects that AR will surge from a $21 million industry in 2010 to a $3 billion juggernaut by 2016. Part of that expansion will include downloads of AR apps, which will bolt nearly 13,000 percent in four years, from 11 million in 2010 to approximately 1.4 billion in 2015, according to Juniper Research Ltd., a Hampshire, England-based research company focusing on the wireless market. Visiongain Ltd., a London-based provider of specialized information to the pharmaceutical, telecom, and defense industries, concurs with that estimate, believing AR will bloom faster and more intensely for cell phones and tablet computers than any other medium. By late 2013, Visiongain predicts that 25 percent of all applications will have some AR component to them.

Layar, generally regarded as one of the most popular AR apps, boasts more than 1 million users, less than three years after its 2009 debut. Driving this trend is the spread of AR-capable smart phones, and AR's effectiveness as a sales tool. AR can build brand awareness and beef up the bottom line as fast as Google can find fan sites gushing about Justin Bieber. In fact, AR experiences at exhibitions can increase attendees' dwell time to an average of 15 minutes, according to the Up Front and Personal report, from Munich-headquartered 3M GTG GmbH, which creates digital content for the retail and advertising industries, as well as events and trade shows. The study also found that people become personally attached to products within the first 30 seconds of contact with them through AR. That's a significant finding, supported by AR-specialist Matt Trubow. The CEO of Hidden Creative Ltd., a Manchester, England-based digital-marketing company, Trubow believes experiencing a brand through AR can lead to a 45-percent increase in sales.

"How Augmented Reality Works"

"The Big Idea"

Hidden Creative

Total Immersion's AR channel on YouTube

Layar Reality Browser, Wikitude World Browser, and Google Maps
www.itunes.com, www.market.android.com

"With augmented reality, exhibitors are able to use technology to take information about the real world surrounding the user and enhance it with an interactive and digitally rich experience," says Ivan Lazarev, CEO and co-founder of ITN International Inc., a Bethesda, MD-headquartered company that helps create mobile-marketing, lead-management, and attendee-tracking solutions for events and exhibits. "It's simply the world of 'connected dreams' coming to reality within a trade show booth."

How are exhibitors using it?

At the 2011 International Motor Show and Accessoires in Geneva, the 170 cars on display included wheeled opulence like Bayerische Motoren Werke (BMW) AG's ConnectedDrive sports car, whose interior boasted a 3-D display showing weather and road conditions, and an exterior that changed colors. Compared to those chic chariots, Ford Motor Co.'s products might seem as exciting as a new floor mat. But like its ads once proclaimed, the Dearborn, MI-based Ford had a better idea.

Inside its 27,000-square-foot exhibit conceived by Imagination Europe Ltd., a London-based global-communications company, Ford established a special 1,400-square-foot section housing two models of its Focus line that were about to be produced: a hatchback and a wagon. Attendees wandering into the area were handed a 6-by-6-inch flier with a special image imprinted on it that looked like a broken circle inside a square. After they held the flier up to the camera-equipped 30-inch LCD screen on any of a trio of kiosks, a Focus model appeared on the screen. Wielding the flier much like one would a controller for the Nintendo Wii, guests could maneuver the Focus on the screen as it sped through a cyber cityscape. The virtual road trip steered visitors through the car's svelte driving dynamics and its technologies, such as customizable LED lighting, a touchscreen display, satellite navigation, rear-parking sensors, and more. By the close of the show, Ford had drawn in about 10 percent more attendees than it expected and recorded dwell times nearly 20 percent above its goal. With AR riding shotgun, Ford went from zero to spectacular in no time at all.

But Ford isn't the only exhibitor that understands AR can mean the difference between a savvy demo and a stupendous dud. Knauf Insulation, which makes thermal- and acoustical-Fiberglas insulation, wanted to show attendees at Ecobuild 2011 in London how its products work - and how Green the company is, too. But that's a rather tall order when your wares are hidden under walls and roofs, and showing them might require constructing cutaway models that would consume lavish amounts of energy to build, ship, and later dispose. Instead, the Shelbyville, IN-based company turned to AR.

Employing three custom-made kiosks equipped with high-definition (HD) cameras and 58-inch LCD displays, Knauf used AR to give visitors a detailed view of its products where static displays might have left them cold. Staff handed attendees 4-by-6-inch cards with 2-D pictures of houses on them. But once an attendee held a card up near any of the 6-foot-high kiosks, a photorealistic picture of a house appeared to float on screen. Twisting the card around in their hands automatically caused the on-screen picture to turn as well, offering cutaway views from all angles. For instance, one view showed how the company's Supafil Party Wall insulates a wall separating two semi-detached homes, while another angle visually demonstrated how the Thermoshell Internal Wall Insulation shields external solid walls in homes - along with data superimposed over the graphics estimating how much the products could save in energy usage. Besides enabling hundreds of guests to see what was previously concealed, the AR approach helped Knauf establish its Green cred, and also saved it some green that it might have spent on superfluous 2-D cutaway models.

Where can I find out more?

Articles available online such as "How Augmented Reality Works" at the HowStuff Works website and "The Big Idea" at National Geographic's website deliver understandable explanations as graphical as they are well written. Additionally, Hidden Creative offers a downloadable guide that covers the tools you'll need for AR, as well as unconventional ways to employ the wizardly technology.

Once you've read how AR works in the abstract, watch online demos of it in the real world at Total Immersion's AR channel on YouTube. Here you'll see how the Suresnes, France-based company has designed AR solutions for events and shows ranging from pressing your luck at virtual slot machines to trying on cyber sunglasses.

Finally, if you want to experience AR ASAP, try apps such as Layar, Wikitude World Browser, and Google Maps, all three of which are available on iTunes and the Android Market.

Debuting in 1974, touchscreens were widely integrated into computer displays, ATMs, vending machines, calculators, and other consumer technologies. Allowing continuous two-way interaction, these computer interfaces can be manipulated by physical contact.

Despite a run of nearly 40 years, touchscreens for trade shows have never quite attained the common status and widespread use they have in the world off the show floor. In fact, these responsive devices didn't start to realize their full potential until 2008, when Microsoft launched Surface. A monitor-like box with five cameras that recorded and reacted to movement, this initial version of Surface allowed you to interact physically with virtually any kind of computer program installed in it, from digital graphics to streaming videos to game-like applications. Surface became a favorite of restaurant, retail, and entertainment venues such as Disneyland, where users could interact with the machine, for instance, by choosing items on menus, playing games, or painting with on-screen paintbrushes controlled by their fingers. Versatile as it was, Surface's bulk prevented it from being deployed in any way other than as a high-tech coffee table.

How fast is it taking off?

Introduced at the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the updated version of Surface, made in conjunction with Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., is quickly evolving into a flexible and indispensable tool for exhibitors. Besides expanding the high-definition screen from 30 inches to 40 inches (measured diagonally), Microsoft now employs new PixelSense technology, a series of LED sensors that replaces the original Surface's cameras. With the space-consuming cameras gone, Surface has slimmed down almost 82 percent, from 21 inches deep to an anorexic 4 inches. (Microsoft predicts that by 2013, Surface will be no thicker than a pane of glass.) Its weight down almost 42 percent from the initial version's chunky 150 pounds to a lean 87 pounds, Surface can now easily be hung vertically with a flat display mounting interface (FDMI), such as a Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA) Mounting Interface Standard (MIS).

"Mobile barcodes: the insider's guide with Laura Marriott"

"QR Code Tradeshow Marketing Guide"

QR Code News


Android Market

The Mobile Marketing Association

SpyderLynk SnapTags



Microsoft Tag

As before, it can be positioned like a coffee table or embedded in furniture. Sophisticated as it is svelte, Surface can handle up to 50 different touches at once, meaning several attendees can work on a Surface simultaneously, reading company literature, perhaps, watching video demos of your products, or playing with interactive animations. Additionally, Surface can recognize real-world objects, such as virtually any smart phone or even some USB drives. Place one of those items on Surface's screen and then drag over any item that appears - a spec sheet, say, or a video of a company's latest widget - to that phone or drive, and the info will automatically "jump" into your device. "Digital tools like Microsoft Surface help people experience information and objects in creative, even tactile ways that engage them in a manner previous interactive touchscreens couldn't," says Jeff Smith, director of emergent technology for the Chicago-based exhibit and event firm Czarnowski Display Services Inc.

While Surface reigns supreme, it's not the only touchscreen in town. TouchTable Inc.'s TouchTable, Circle Twelve Inc.'s DiamondTouch, and GestureTek Inc.'s Multi-Touch Table supply their own versions roughly similar to Surface in appearance and applications: Each company's touchscreen offers the ability for several people simultaneously to interact with content displayed on it by exerting pressure on its exterior.

How are exhibitors using it?

Pfizer Inc. found a cure for the common interactive experience at the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) Meeting in Philadelphia, with its Pfizer Fibromyalgia Tender Point Exam and Pressure Simulator. With the help of Blue Telescope, a New York-based firm specializing in interactive media for trade show and museum exhibits, Pfizer and its staff asked physicians to locate the typical pain points of fibromyalgia sufferers on a 3-D anatomical animation of a human body displayed on a Microsoft Surface screen. The doctors not only had to know the precise locations of pain points for victims of the muscle- and connective-tissue disease, but also exert enough pressure on an adjacent pressure pad (about 9 pounds' worth, the amount it takes to find the affected areas on a real live human) before a pain point would light up. The exercise was not only engaging for the physicians, but also genuinely educational in the intellectual and tactile sense, creating an experience well beyond the capacity of most interactive screens.

Pfizer prescribed Surface for educational purposes at the ACR conference, but Fujifilm Medical Systems administered it as an antidote for out-of-control exhibit traffic at the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) show. Fujifilm employed Surface at the 2010 show as a way for time-starved radiologists and other physician attendees to help themselves to in-booth information. Visitors entering the 11,200-square-foot booth of the Stamford, CT-based maker of medical-imaging products didn't need to navigate through throngs of thousands or the 500 staffers to find the information they wanted, stat. Instead, visitors only had to step up to one of two Microsoft Surface monitors arranged in the booth like coffee tables, and activate it on their own, or with one of the Fujifilm demonstrators hovering nearby.

Using Fujifilm's Synapse imaging system on the Surface, doctors could pore over 3-D images of seven other products and services, such as 3-D digital mammography and wireless digital X-ray. Fujifilm added a novel twist of competitive intelligence to what some might see as just a, well, surface experience. Guests could tap into a map program, whose various "pin points" indicated where Fujifilm products were being used around the country. When the MDs eyeballed some item of interest to them - a competing clinic, say, or a hospital known for its state-of-the-art practices - they could zoom in on the facility's profile and explore exactly which Fujifilm technology it was using. By the end of RSNA, more than 12 percent of the nearly 2,500 booth visitors used the tables, staying an average of 15 minutes, approximately 10 percent more than the average customer spent in the booth. By allowing attendees to explore at their own pace on Microsoft Surface, Fujifilm found a way to appeal to attendees who might otherwise turn away in impatience from a congested exhibit.

Where can I find out more?

The new Surface, aka Samsung SUR40 for Microsoft Surface, is currently available. If you're sold on the technology by now, Samsung's Surface website furnishes contact information to purchase the touchscreen. Beyond buying, however, the site offers a handy "Venue Readiness Guide" on how to assess the physical area around where you'll place the device, including the availability of power as well as the levels of light and air circulation required. Like any computing device, though, the Surface is only as good as its content. For resources aimed at helping developers and IT professionals creating software for the Surface, surf over to Microsoft Surface's Getting Started page. A glance at the software giant's Surface Case Studies page will also give you inspiration for applications to enhance your exhibiting effort.

Less technical and more accessible is the Microsoft Surface Channel on YouTube, where you'll see the company introduce the new Surface at the 2011 CES, along with some examples of how companies are using it, from the Royal Bank of Canada to the Hard Rock Cafe International.

In next month's final installment of "Techno Files," we'll offer glimpses of three more technological wonders from a future so bright, you're going to need extra-strength Ray-Bans.


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