This Man Wants to Kill QR Codes. Can He Do It?
Herbert Bay doesn’t like QR codes very much. He’s not alone, of course: The glitchy glyphs, generally a clumsy way to link physical media to the Web, are regarded by many  as the ugliest thing in black and white since D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.
Yet they have proved remarkably popular with publishers, advertisers, and Web consultants desperate to find gimmicks that can add interactivity to analog media.
But it’s not just that Bay, a Swiss entrepreneur, dislikes QR codes. He also thinks he has a way to kill them off entirely.
His company, Kooaba in Zurich, Switzerland, has been working on a suite of image-recognition technologies for the past six years, ever since it was spun off from Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology. And now it has introduced a new app it hopes can make a significant dent in the way we link the offline and online worlds.
The app, Shortcut, allows users to take a photo of newspaper pieces, magazine articles, advertisements, and even billboards and link them to a digital version on their phone. With a Path-like UI, users can then share, comment on, or store what they’ve found—or play with it if interactive extras are attached.
“The pitch when we talk to newspapers and printed publications is that we can make them interactive—and they don’t need to place any QR codes anywhere,” says Bay. “In addition, they can sell their advertisers on that interactivity. … It removes the need for QR codes.”
It already works with such publications as USA Today and the New York Post, and more are being added all the time. In practice, it is not a million miles from Google Goggles, but Shortcut has more focus.
The app—for iPhone, Android, and Windows Phone—is actually a retooling of a previous release known as Paperboy, chiefly for news media. That remains its strong point, as it recognizes more than 1,000 newspapers and magazines from all over the world. Through a partnership with the international media sales company Publicitas, however, Bay and his team realized they wanted to branch out to advertising—and that meant they needed to rework what they had done.
Even though Shortcut has broadened its remit a little, the reality is that Kooaba could actually apply its technology to any media: DVD cases, books, movie posters, CDs. Instead, the company has chosen to keep its focus narrow to try to gain traction.
“The thing with a startup is deciding where to put your resources,” says Bay. “Newspapers and magazines are low-hanging fruit for our app, so we’re focused on those for now.”
Simply recognizing images may not be enough, though. Image recognition—Kooaba’s secret sauce—is a hard nut to crack, but it has become radically easier over the past few years as computing power has moved to the cloud. Bay thinks the extra ingredient lies in a system Kooaba has built that allows publishers to add interactive elements to the content fed into Shortcut. With many media companies struggling and confused about where to spend their time and energy, however, he admits it is proving a tough sell.
Right now the majority of the app’s traction has come through partnerships—one with NewspaperDirect, which has a huge inventory of around 2,000 newspapers every day, and one that links it with Evernote.
It has gotten this far with about $5 million in funding—one seed round from a Swiss bank, friends, and angel investors, and another slightly larger round from private Swiss investors.
To break through, however, Kooaba needs to forge a couple of really smart deals with great publishers and advertisers to sidestep the dreaded QR code. But Bay knows that to take the service to the next level, he will need something more—and that could require more funds.
“In terms of profitability we do well on the technology side,” he says. “But the advertising part is resource-demanding—we need sales guys and business development, so we are looking for strategic investment.”
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