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What's that in dog sock-puppet years?
October 30, 2008 6:44 PM   Subscribe

The :CueCat finally received its patent this month, eight years after its abject failure in the marketplace.

Once touted by its marketers as the missing link between newsprint and the world wide web, over a million :CueCat handheld barcode scanners were given away in 2000 by select retailers and newspaper and magazine publishers. The plan was for users to use their CueCat to scan barcodes appended to printed stories and advertising in order to launch a related website. The cat-shaped scanner also sent a unique identifier intended to allow Digital:Convergence, the company behind it, to package and sell users' browsing habits and demographics to advertisers.

Trying to solve a problem nobody really needed solved and faced with significant privacy concerns, adoption of the Cuecat was limited.

Today, neutered CueCats live a peaceful second life helping collectors catalog their books and media discs.
posted by jamaro (46 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
I have me a neutered CueCat. Works fine, but often have to go back and forth over the barcode way too many time.

A $90 hand scanner will cost more, but works way better. But that's a hundred bucks.

I think I got my Cat a few years ago on eBay.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:48 PM on October 30, 2008


I remember getting one in the mail.

My girlfriend at the time, disgusted: "you didn't pay for that, did you??"

The Cuecat to me was the ultimate example of something that just does not pass the common-sense test. Why on earth would anyone, even one person, WANT to scan a barcode? it's like telemarketing, except you're asking people to make the effort to call the telemarketer themselves.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:54 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have one I bought off ebay for five bucks, it works awesome sometimes.
posted by Divine_Wino at 6:58 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


The Cuecat to me was the ultimate example of something that just does not pass the common-sense test. Why on earth would anyone, even one person, WANT to scan a barcode? it's like telemarketing, except you're asking people to make the effort to call the telemarketer themselves.
Imagine if the company had done things differently -- built a site that tracked a person's music, movies, books, and any other barcodable product. Hell, tracked their cereal!

Turned it into an ego-wanking lifestream feature that let people keep track of everything they purchased and consumed and show it off to their friends... all for free, along with a scanner to make it easy.

Then sold the product purchasing data to third parties and offered targeted advertising to users of the service.

They would have absolutely, positively demolished any potential competitors, and they would have had people beating a path to their door, begging for accounts on their service. But no, they had to take the stupid MBA way out and ask people to do work to read ads that they scanned in from bar codes contained in other ads.

They blew all their money on the EXPENSIVE part, actually sending physical hardware to tons of people. A depressing waste of what could've been a real opportunity for them. Of course, I bought one for $2 on eBay. Now I use it with someone else's shareware program to do what I just described.
posted by verb at 7:02 PM on October 30, 2008 [15 favorites]


Why on earth would anyone, even one person, WANT to scan a barcode?

Because you want information stored in a database somewhere indexed by the key contained in the barcode.

I think that if they'd done a few things different, the cuecat folks could have been huge, and eventually, someone will be for something similar.
posted by weston at 7:04 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Because you want information stored in a database somewhere indexed by the key contained in the barcode.
Indeed. All they offered at the other end was... A URL. Since then, companies have learned that it's a lot easier just to buy a reasonably easy to remember domain name.
posted by verb at 7:07 PM on October 30, 2008


Now, we're seeing those funny 2D barcodes on things, that you're meant to take a picture of with your cell phone, and some software will take you to their website.

I was at a pharmacy yesterday, and on the wall was a poster for a hayfever medication, with one of these 2D barcodes on it.

Presumably, I was supposed to take out my phone, take a picture, wait for the site to load and display on its minuscule screen (spending money on data charges while I did so), so I could learn more about his miracle cure.

Or, I could have just asked the pharmacist.

Advertisers are under the mistaken impression that people actually want to actively peruse advertising.
posted by Jimbob at 7:14 PM on October 30, 2008


I got one from my Wired subscription and one from my Forbes subscription. It was totally clear at the time that this was the dumbest .com business idea to date, but I seem to recall thousands of geeks were suddenly all about barcodes.

In retrospect, I have to wonder whether CueCats ushered in the era of geek cataloging of books, CD collections, and movie collections. It was a bit of nirvana for those of us who are a bit OCDy—our impulse to collect combined with our impulse to catalog those collections. Thanks, CueCat!
posted by waldo at 7:26 PM on October 30, 2008


Because you want information stored in a database somewhere indexed by the key contained in the barcode.

Right. But we're talking about people selling stuff, right? They should be making that information EASY to find in any number of ways, not hidden in a barcode. It ended up like some kind of "Where's Waldo" exercise, with the prize being the right to be separated from both your money and your privacy.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:26 PM on October 30, 2008


Those were special times.
posted by Artw at 7:29 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


@jimbob: I'd take the barcode reader in a second - there have been a single-digit number of times in my life where you could just walk over and ask a pharmacist without standing in line. The important thing is is that their focus was on selling ads rather than empowering the user: as an ad delivery mechanism with lousy software, the CueCat failed - this says nothing about the value of e.g. my being able to easily scan a barcode using an iPhone/Android-class phone and get price comparisons, consumer reports, etc.
posted by adamsc at 7:32 PM on October 30, 2008


Right. But we're talking about people selling stuff, right?

No.

this says nothing about the value of e.g. my being able to easily scan a barcode using an iPhone/Android-class phone and get price comparisons, consumer reports, etc.

Exactly.
posted by weston at 7:36 PM on October 30, 2008


Jimbob, can you blame them? Advertisers are, by definition, people who actively peruse advertising.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 7:37 PM on October 30, 2008


We're working on a cueLOLcat:

"I can has barcodez?"
posted by An Infinity Of Monkeys at 7:40 PM on October 30, 2008 [11 favorites]


[...] built a site that tracked a person's music, movies, books, and any other barcodable product. Hell, tracked their cereal!

So close.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 8:01 PM on October 30, 2008


Jimbob: Advertisers are under the mistaken impression that people actually want to actively peruse advertising.

Except that it's not a mistaken impression. Not here in America. People seem to watch infomercials. Lots of people pay money for legible clothing and voluntarily carry around advertising, without being paid to do so.


Back in the day, I got a CueCat in the mail. It arrived broken.

And back in 2000, we were a Mac-only household, and had no way to connect it even if we had wanted to. Just brilliant marketing.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 8:41 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


I got a free CueCat in the mail somehow. I think I signed up on a website, back in the days when people thought that giving things away for free on the web would somehow translate into profit. I recall seeing those bar codes in magazines, and I think I swiped a total of one before I realized how idiotic the concept was: I want to know more about this subject, so I have to take the magazine to my computer, swipe a bar code, and be taken to a website. Which may be mostly advertising. It just didn't make sense. Why not "For more info, go to rhinoplastymonthly.com"? Oh ya. That's what everyone does now.

Plus, I didn't want to rub magazine pages with something that looked like a penis. Too many teenage memories.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 8:45 PM on October 30, 2008


I like using CueCat on librarything, it's a fairly well-working tool

Seriously, though, I have never purposely sought out advertising that wasn't in some way funny or viral. At no point sitting at my desk have I suddenly had the desire to learn more about my Mountain Dew, and remorsefully wish CueCat still had it's original purpose intact.
posted by graventy at 8:47 PM on October 30, 2008


Ah, my :CueCat!

I tried to use it when ordering "Ben & Jerry's" from Kozmo.com. I guess we were too stoned to hear the buzzer. We had better luck calling Pink Dot (in L.A.).

Next up we tried barcode swipes for Webvan, Pets.com, Flooz.com, eToys.com, Go.com, GovWorks.com, Boo.com and MVP.com, Kibu.com. Again, no luck on any deliveries.
posted by ericb at 8:59 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Damn, some of you guys actually paid for one of those things? At one point I had 3 of them on my desk, and I don't even remember how I got them, but I know I didn't spend anything on them. A couple months later a friend and I found a whole box full of them next to the dumpster behind a Radio Shack.

Back then the only use I could find for them was scanning the barcodes of stuff on my desk to generate ridiculously long and complex passwords for my root account.
posted by Venadium at 9:00 PM on October 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


I have me a neutered CueCat.

I think the term you're looking for there is actually "declawed".
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:09 PM on October 30, 2008 [3 favorites]


It was a bit of nirvana for those of us who are a bit OCDy—our impulse to collect combined with our impulse to catalog those collections.

This is exactly why I bought one on ebay earlier this year. It's fabulous.
posted by Arturus at 9:21 PM on October 30, 2008


Does Bob Barker have a neutered CueCat?

I use mine to scan books. It makes me feel soothed when I'm at work to look at all my books.
posted by winna at 9:22 PM on October 30, 2008


CueCat was my first clue to cancel my WIRED magazine subscription. The second was the WIRED feature on my company's founder.

Having sat through a couple presentations by Near Field Communications vendors for mobile carriers, I can say that the NFC guys have not learned from CueCat's failure at all. They're eager to foist this nonsense on us all again.

In contrast, two developers for the Android platform get it: ShopSavvy/GoCart from Big In Japan and Compare Everywhere from Jeffrey Sharkey. Rather than locking you in to a message from the manufacturer, they treat the barcode like a search engine query, allowing you to hook into what other people think about the product. By being fundamentally open and decentralized, they avoid a lot of the problems plaguing CueCat and NFC.

You can do that sort of thing when you have an open platform like Android instead of the wireless carriers' Soviet-ministry-style central planning.
posted by sdodd at 9:31 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Remember their other scheme? I think it was called :CRQ. The idea:
  1. You plug the audio out from your TV to the audio in on your PC.
  2. You install their software on your PC and leave it running whenever you are watching TV.
  3. You arrange your PC and TV so you can see them both, I guess.
  4. During commercials, this super annoying SQUAWK sound plays, kind of like the emergency broadcasting system attention tone.
  5. Your PC picks up this sound, decodes it, and through the magic of Digital Convergence™ automatically pops up a web browser with information about the product you just saw!
Believe it or not, for what seemed like just a few weeks at least one of the networks was actually participating in this, and broadcasting those annoying squawks to the entire nation.
posted by steveminutillo at 10:04 PM on October 30, 2008


Was cocaine free or something?
posted by Artw at 10:12 PM on October 30, 2008 [5 favorites]


Both of Artw's comments, like the :CueCat itself, sum up the late 90s tech boom perfectly.
posted by verb at 10:39 PM on October 30, 2008


The :CueCat finally received its patent this month, eight years after its abject failure in the marketplace.

And ironically, it may have been invalidated a mere 9 days later by the holding in In re Bilski.

But only because it's all method claims. Speaking of which, any reason this is particularly noteworthy now, given that related patent 6,745,234 issued in 2004 and included system claims directed more towards what we conventionally think of as the CueCat?
posted by rkent at 10:46 PM on October 30, 2008


rkent: noteworthy only in that it caught my eye today while I was using my modded cuecat to help set up an inventory for my son's school's veryverysmalllibrary. Thank you for the additional info, it sounds like the quest for this patent was a fail after all.
posted by jamaro at 11:02 PM on October 30, 2008


I hang out with some home-automation folks, and the idea of a fluid database as living inventory of things in your house is a popular one, especially if you can query it remotely.

Do I need to buy more chicken soup while I'm out? (No, you already have seven cans)
Where's my red blazer? (Definitely not in the house. Maybe at the cleaners?)
Where's the Sopranos Season 4 DVD? (upstairs, on top of the TV).

Barcodes were a hot idea for this once. More recently though, it's all about RFID, which works much better for location-awareness and data entry. Nobody wants to type or even scan every object they bring home.
posted by rokusan at 4:03 AM on October 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


it's like telemarketing, except you're asking people to make the effort to call the telemarketer themselves.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:54 PM on October 30


Which is precisely the business model of massively successful QVC.

I wish I had a cuecat. I would take it apart, remove the mirror, and expose the laser, which I would then shoot at cats.

Then I would have a PewCat.
posted by Pastabagel at 5:31 AM on October 31, 2008 [3 favorites]


During the decline part of the CueCat's lifespan, I went into a Radio Shack in a somewhat rough neighborhood, and asked the old man with a pocket protector whether they still had 'any of those CueCat scanner things.' He laughed, then gave me a whole, unopened box. I gave them to everyone I knew, most of whom had no idea what the thing was and, after I explained it, still didn't have any idea. Then I gave the rest of the box to a friend, who sold them individually on eBay.
posted by box at 6:19 AM on October 31, 2008


Quoting a late friend of mine, from when I told him that the CueCat people claimed his new reverse-engineerable toy was worth $50:

"$50 is worth roughly two weeks of giggling. So, will someone please
explain their business model to me? I think it went like this: "Well,
investors have given us scads of money. We *could* just pour gasoline on
it and cook hot dogs, but lots of other dotcoms are already doing
that. Let's break new ground and give away tons of expensive hardware with
no hope of enforcing any sort of contract. Then we can snort pounds of
pure Colombian blow and congratulate ourselves on a job well
done! <snooorrrrt> Whee!"
posted by roystgnr at 6:20 AM on October 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


"I can has barcodez?"

I think for a lot of people who have CueCats, it's more like:

INVISIBLE BARCODE

I still love mine, though.
posted by NemesisVex at 6:30 AM on October 31, 2008


I, um, burned mine.
posted by dmd at 7:07 AM on October 31, 2008


I had two serial :CueCats and one USB model--all obtained at RadioShack for the princely sum of Zero. I used to use them with Readerware, but I found that having a database of all of my cds was instantly resolved with my computer's mp3 player. No, I don't have the same level of information available, but I have all I need.

I thought they were pretty neat for a while, but their red glow seemed somehow sinister, and I am a dog person, anyway.
posted by beelzbubba at 7:25 AM on October 31, 2008


This is kind of like the artist that nobody appreciates until after he dies... except it's really not great art. It's more like a hot dog vendor who nobody appreciates until after they die.

But hot dogs are too useful.

It's more like an ass hair trimmer manufacturer who nobody appreciates until after they die, only they don't really appreciate them, they just acknowledge that their ass hair trimmer was really unique.
posted by jarvitron at 8:53 AM on October 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


TWEET! Unnecessary colon! Fifteen yard penalty, still 3rd down.

Wait, the game's been over for how many years?
posted by not_on_display at 9:05 AM on October 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


I tried to use it when ordering "Ben & Jerry's" from Kozmo.com. I guess we were too stoned to hear the buzzer. We had better luck calling Pink Dot (in L.A.).


A perfect summation of the mid to late 90s.
posted by The Whelk at 10:39 AM on October 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


from the consumer side, Artw was the ...producer side.

I've dug myself into a hole.
posted by The Whelk at 10:40 AM on October 31, 2008


Another key 90s tech skill.
posted by Artw at 10:51 AM on October 31, 2008


Have any of you actually used ShopSavvy?

I've wished for a very, very long time to have a wireless scanning app that would allow me to wirelessly catalog my library and put it into Delicious Library. If it could do that AND let me add food/beauty products to my Amazon Grocery list, I'd be THERE with bells on.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 1:13 PM on October 31, 2008


I think the frowny emoticon logo was a sign of impending doom.
:C
posted by O9scar at 3:44 PM on October 31, 2008


dmd, watching your burning cuecat with the background music from Splitter was strangely soothing. Sort of like crackling logs on a fireplace in winter, except... not.
posted by Alterscape at 4:07 PM on October 31, 2008


I found one in a tech thrift store a few years back, hanging behind the counter. When I said "OMG CueCat!" the guy at the counter was so startled (they weren't planning to sell it, apparently; it was just a curio) that he let me buy it for a quarter. It's decorated my office(s) since then. Nobody ever knows what it it. (I don't work with a lot of techies.)

I had no idea you could use it for actual useful stuff now. Will need to track down the right connector bits.... (serial to USB?)
posted by epersonae at 5:23 PM on October 31, 2008


MetaFilter: ass hair trimmer manufacturer who nobody appreciates
posted by beelzbubba at 1:39 PM on November 2, 2008


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