Geek Trivia

Which Failed 1990s Product Foreshadowed QR-Code Based Advertising?

Coupon Clipz
Which Of These Shows Ushered In Frequent Use Of Cliffhangers In Television?
CueCat scanner resting on a keyboard
Denise Chan/Flickr

Answer: CueCat

These days, it’s fairly commonplace to see QR codes everywhere—from magazine ads to the care tags on potted plants. Hundreds of millions of people have smartphones that allow them to quickly and easily scan the codes and access information online; even the app you use to do the scanning has gone from a specialty add-on to something built into stock camera apps in a matter of years.

At the end of the 1990s, however, the idea of scanning a product or advertisement to get more information about it was a foreign one and mobile phones weren’t advanced enough to handle the task. It was in this environment that the ill-fated CueCat, from the Digital Convergence Corporation, struggled to survive.

The CueCat was a physical peripheral you hooked up to your computer, much like a computer mouse. The slim and vaguely cat-shaped device was just a cheap barcode scanner that ran on propriety software and allowed you to scan product barcodes and barcodes placed in printed advertisements to get more information from the company in question—much in the same way that we now use QR and barcodes with our smartphones.

In 2000, however, consumers simply failed to see the utility of the device. Nobody wanted to drag things to their computer to scan them; the entire system lacked the ease and spontaneity that future consumers would enjoy with simple barcode scanners. In addition, there were widespread concerns over privacy since you had to sign up for a CueCat account and each physical CueCat was serialized and linked to your account. As if that wasn’t enough, in the latter part of 2000, a data breach at the company exposed customer data.

Between the impracticality of using the device, concerns over privacy (including the data breach), and the company’s particularly aggressive stance against people tinkering with or modifying the CueCat hardware and software, the product was destined for failure. When the CueCat was finally put down, it took 185 million dollars worth of investment capital with it.