Hold Still a Minute

Note: An earlier version of this piece mischaracterized the idea below as a ‘leak’ from Microsoft; I’ve rewritten it to correct this. I apologize to all those involved, particularly D, for the error.
A friend passed on an interesting idea last week, which she in turn received from her friend D, who had heard it discussed in a talk by Howard Rheingold after it was demoed by Marc Smith, a research sociologist at Microsoft.
Confused enough? Good. Anyway, here’s what D had to say about this idea in a posting he made to a mail distribution list:

[Ka-Ping Yee’s] ” lets you annotate web pages. Why can’t you annotate reality?
This describes a way to easily and conveniently view the online information about stuff. The first implementations are intended to use items that have barcodes, and can be easily accessed in person. Do you want to know whether this brand of milk is rGBH-free, but the label doesn’t say? Wondering if the FDA is suing the maker of the product?
The usual methods for annotating reality have been these;
* Put up an opinion on “epinions” (or some other web sites); figure that people can search for it themselves.
* Stick little inductance coils on stuff; wait for people to wave a wand past it and look in your archive. Hope that inductance coils get really cheap, really fast. (This was the Xeroc Parc appraoch.)
* Give people a “CueCat” to read barcodes, and wire it to a land-based computer and provide special software that only sees your content.
But this has gotten to the point where you can do it at home.
The general idea here is this:
* CompactFlash barcode scanners are cheap. Like $150 or so.
* Wireless palmtop devices that take compactflash are common.
* UPC -> Product Code databases are available as web services that give you a few hundred free lookups per day.
* Google looks up lots of stuff fast. Use their open database.
So, you write software that runs the scanner and looks up the bar code to figure out what product it is, and then looks up the web comments, and you suddenly have a universal annotation system for UPC’d stuff.
Do you want to only get comments on stuff from your friends? Have them all embed some fairly unique word [something like “j19381938”] into their reviews and webpages, and add that to your search terms.

D also mentions that Marc Smith has said that Microsoft is working on an implementation of this technology that may be released within the next six months.
As I find is often the case, the problem here is not that the idea is too ambitious, it is that it is not ambitious enough.
What would really be useful is if you could add facial recognition technology into the loop. Then you wouldn’t be limited to annotating products and objects: you could annotate people!
Thinking of buying that nice antique sofa from that kindly old spinster? Scan grandma and find out that she’s wanted for fraud in a few states. Wondering if that cute guy buying you a drink is a player? Scan him and find out what his last three girlfriends thought of his technique.
The possibilities for dating alone boggle the mind. Next time you have a — shall we say, successful evening at that singles bar — you’d best watch out if you see your lady friend hunched over her Palm furiously scribbling something the next morning. You might want to buy her a nice breakfast, just to be safe.
Now, if I could just sell somebody on my idea to use that fast-lane toll-booth radio-payment technology for frequent commuters to create EZ_PASS for hookers, I’d have it made for sure…
PS – Yes, the actual idea is pretty cool, if you must force me to stop being a goofball. I doubt it’s a killer app, but I could see it being an added capability that gradually gets tacked-on to existing PDA’s and slowly migrates from the whiz-bang-early-adopters-only stage to a fairly common feature on anybody’s normal PDA…