By Ethan Frogget
What will they think of next? Instead of taking the time to type a web address on your phone’s Internet browser, a new app can do it for you. Smart phones now have the ability to scan special bar codes around Lower Manhattan and let users receive information and directions to the store or restaurant of their choice.
According to the Alliance for Downtown New York, more than 200 stores and restaurants have opened in the Lower Manhattan since 2005, bringing the total to 1060 in the three quarters of a square mile South of Chambers Street. So it’s a perfect spot to try out new technology. For the first time ever, the Alliance for Downtown New York is using 2-D barcode technology to help shoppers and diners find what they want.
“As technology changes, we change with it,” said Elizabeth Berger, president of the Downtown Alliance.
She says Lower Manhattan is one of the most dynamic and successful live-work communities in the world. One “very walkable square mile” offers residents, workers and visitors upscale retail and dining during the holiday season.
The nation’s fourth largest business district is becoming as popular during the holidays as Midtown and is fast becoming one of the most popular places to shop this holiday season.
“I’m seeing it in the streets,” said Jamie Lipmann Avish, general manager for Tent Trails, a sporting goods store at 21 Park Place. “It’s better than it was last year. People are paying more in cash now than they usually do, but other than that everything else is fine.”
Local restaurants are reaping the benefits too. “It’s been extremely busy, in a fortunate way for us, contrary to what our predictions were.” said Amit Verma, manager of the Wall and Water restaurant at Andaz Wall Street.
According to NYC and Company, 45.6 million people visited the city in 2009, and they spent $28.2 billion. Finding all the stores and restaurants Manhattan has to offer can be a challenge.
That’s where a free app called Scanlife, made by the company Scanbuy, comes to the rescue. It turns a smart phone into a barcode reader.
The barcodes are small red squares, about the size of a Saltine cracker, with a few dozen smaller red squares inside. They are located in the bottom right corner of posters, which can be found on sidewalks, news stands, sides of buildings, bus shelters and busses on the Downtown Alliance’s free bus service, the Downtown Connection.
“The Downtown Alliance is giving people direct access to digital information when they are on the go and need it most,” said Mike Wehrs, president of Scanbuy, Inc., in a press release.
When the barcode is scanned, a menu instantly pops up on the smart phone’s screen displaying choices of categories of useful information. The user can see maps, WiFi hotspot locations, a shopping and dining guide, or the Downtown Alliance Holiday Brochure– highlighting popular retail stores such as Tiffany & Co., Hermés, Century 21 Department Store, and restaurants like Delmonico’s and Harry’s Café.
Every year the Downtown Alliance sends a printed version of the brochure to many commercial and residential buildings in Lower Manhattan. This year, the new barcode is on it.
According to James Yolles, director of public affairs at the Downtown Alliance, businesses can buy ten bar codes for $5,000– each with an unlimited number of scans allowed. The owner of the bar code has the ability to track the number of times each bar code is scanned. As of December 8, the Downtown Alliance bar codes had been scanned 253 times since they were activated on November 15.
To assist smart phone users with the barcodes, the Downtown Alliance recently upgraded its ten WiFi hot spots around the district with higher bandwidth, new technology, and expanded coverage.
The new barcode technology has endless possibilities for advertising.
The Scanlife app launched in 2008. David Javitch, vice president of marketing for Scanbuy Inc., said it had been in development for four years and that the mobile barcode industry really started in Japan in 2004. Scanbuy’s main obstacle: waiting for barcode reading hardware, such as camera phones and data connections, to be widely available and adopted by consumers.
The time has come. Mobile Internet and apps are being used more than ever. According to the Pew Research Center, 32 percent more adults in the United States are accessing the Internet from cell phones than last year. And New York City residents have been quick adapters. People all over the city can be seen staring into their cell phones.
Scanbuy’s Javitch said the barcode reader depends on the quality of the smart phone’s camera and autofocus capabilities. When the app is activated, the phone’s camera starts searching for a barcode. When it thinks it has found one, it focuses on the bar code to make it as crisp and high contrast as needed to give the phone instructions. The app tells the phone to activate the data network and the bar code tells it which website to go to.
Sometimes light conditions, condensation or dirty barcodes can prevent the phone from scanning correctly.
Javitch said designing the app for all different kinds of phones and operating systems is a challenge for Scanbuy because hand-held devices all have different kinds of cameras on them.
It seems to be catching on. According to a trend report by Scanlife, scanning traffic around the world increased 700 percent between January and July. They expect the growth to remain exponential for the rest of the year. Based on information collected by a voluntary user survey from the Scanlife app, nearly three quarters of the users are male. Scanlife says it may be because males usually adopt new technology earlier. The report also shows the most popular phone model scanning barcodes is Verizon’s Android, which often has the app pre-loaded, followed by BlackBerry and iPhone.
“The development of the app is well into the seven figures because we develop so many versions around the world,” said Javitch. “We also preload our app on some phones which is a lot of work.”
The app is free to smart phone users. Javitch said three rounds of private and venture capital funding has paid for the project.
Meanwhile, in downtown Manhattan, visitors are finding what they want with a mere scan. But it’s only temporary, for the moment anyway. “This is just for the holidays,” said the alliance’s Yolles. “But we’re definitely considering using the technology in the future.”