Microsoft  has developed a new platform that allows advertisers to add colourful, two-dimensional barcodes to anything from marketing materials to computer games, and which directs consumers to specific Web sites when scanned using a mobile phone.
The colorful 2D Microsoft Tags (in geometric or dotted design formats) transform offline marketing media – print advertising, billboards, packaging and merchandising in stores or on LCD displays, for example – into live links for accessing information and entertainment online. Tags can also be included on all kinds of material: paper handouts, vCards, t-shirts, magnets, online, business cards, buses, buildings and even dogtags. Designed with ease-of-use in mind, the Tag enables the user to easily bring information to his/her cell phone without having to type a URL or send shortcodes.
More advanced than the familiar bar codes found on product packaging, Microsoft’s 2-D bar codes store data in two dimensions, letting them stash more data than regular bar codes, including information such as Web site and e-mail addresses.
2D bar codes are popular in Japan where consumers use them to pay bills and download video content. But there is a difference between Japan’s QR (Quick Response) codes and Microsoft Tags. While QR-codes and other forms of barcodes can be used to encode information, Microsoft’s High Capacity Color Barcodes (HCCB codes) are easily decoded even when image quality is poor, and they can be applied to a much wider range of media including videos and billboards. (This is important as U.S. cell phone cameras are of poor quality in comparison with European and Japanese phones, according to a Microsoft spokesperson who declined to be named.)
Microsoft Tags also enable publishers to create a meaningful connection between customers and their brands in ways not broadly available to them previously. The system allows advertisers to have conversations with consumers across any media. Consumers can see a Tag, snap it, and be conveniently connected to more information, exclusive discounts, movie trailers, video clips, exhibit details, maps and directions, and much more. Tag creators, such as marketers, can track Tag activity. Tags give the publishers rich analytics that can inform them regarding their marketing strategies and spend.
For the past three years, Microsoft has been modifying its barcode system from being a tool through which to transfer information to a more interactive system that embraces emerging technology and users’ behaviour.
With its newest form, owners of Web-enabled cell phones can use the camera on their handset to scan a specifically-designed Tag, whereby they are automatically connected to a campaign Web site on the mobile Internet.
Microsoft’s Tags don’t contain information within their code; instead, they act as links to data stored on Microsoft’s servers. To encourage consumers to create and use Tags, Microsoft has also released TagReader software compatible with several types of cellphones. Microsoft’s TagReader currently works on the iPhone, the BlackBerry, Nokia’s Symbian, the J2ME, and with others to be added. (The phone needs a camera and must have Internet-access.)
The Microsoft Tag API allows anyone to create the Tag from the Web, the desktop and mobile devices. Further, Microsoft custom Tags can additionally combine branding and code reading into a single footprint. Rather than the traditional industrial-looking 2D barcode which often takes visual focus away from the message, with Microsoft Custom Tags, the code can be fully integrated into the look and form of the message itself. The small, colorful codes can be printed, stuck, or displayed just about anywhere, making whatever they are one interactive.
The sophisticated technology powering Microsoft HCCBs was invented by Microsoft Research. It was designed from the ground up for maximum performance with the limited cameras on most mobile phones.
General Mills  employed the immediate predecessor to the current barcode format on a flyer at the 2009 X Games. As part of the food company’s promotion, visitors could scan the Tag on a flyer to get updates about one of the competitors who were sponsored by its Totino’s Pizza brand, also and request free samples of the product.
And in a pilot test at Walmart  earlier this year, to publicize the release of an Xbox  game called ‘Halo Wars ’, the retailer created Tag-enabled store displays. Consumers who scanned the Tags with their phones were taken to a special Web site where they could pre-order the game and get such freebies as ringtones. (85% of the people who visited the site ended up downloading content onto their phone.)
Microsoft itself is planning to use the most recent type in some 10 Xbox games this fall as part of a broad marketing initiative.
Various other U.S.- advertisers have announced plans to try Microsoft Tags in marketing. Among them is Procter & Gamble  who will use them to promote its Head & Shoulders  shampoo, and an unnamed leading car manufacturer will use Tags in store brochures.
The Tag technology is still technically in Beta as Microsoft tweaks it, based on usage data and customer feedback. The Microsoft Tag Beta is intended for use in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Turkey. It is available via a free Beta download for commercial publishers and the general public in the U.S. and will roll out to the other countries at a later date.