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updated 12/13/2006 9:50:32 PM ET 2006-12-14T02:50:32

Technologists have long dreamed of using the Internet to send data about consumer products to shoppers in real time, wherever they happen to be. Researchers at Microsoft Corp. claim they're getting closer to making that happen.

(MSNBC is a joint Microsoft - NBC Universal venture.)

Beginning this week, people who have phones and other portable devices that run the company's Windows Mobile operating system can download a free Microsoft application known as AURA. It stands for Advanced User Resource Annotation and is designed to connect shoppers on the go to a world of information about products.

People with an AURA-enabled device would use its digital camera to snap the bar code on a product. AURA then would deliver several links and search results about the item to the handheld computer. A consumer might learn whether the same product is available for a lower price elsewhere, for example, or whether the item was manufactured in a country with controversial labor practices.

Microsoft hopes everyday users would eventually augment the information AURA delivers by using AURA's Web site to post reviews and other details about things they own.

Marc Smith, a researcher in Microsoft's community technologies group, acknowledges that "history is littered with efforts in this regard. This is not really a brand new idea at all."

He cites, for example, failed devices such as the CueCat, which could read bar codes in newspapers and magazines and send their users' PCs directly to affiliated Web pages.

But Smith argues that previous consumer-information applications have failed because until now, people weren't regularly carrying portable devices with the processing power, wireless connectivity and cameras to make such a service feasible and easy.

"Now we have to ask ourselves, what's the social application, what's going to happen when millions of people have these devices?" Smith said. While AURA is still an early-phase research project, he believes it's "a little taste of what the future be like when you can walk up to any device and interrogate it and annotate it."

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