Barcode Hero is the perfect technology statement of our age. Never mind that the name itself echoes one of the hottest videogame franchises; this is a deft combination of iPhone app, Facebook feed and Foursquare-like "check-ins," wrapped around a hardened core of mercilessly conspicuous consumption. It's definitely awesome — but it's also probably evil.
Barcode Hero, by Kima Labs, has a simple enough pitch: "Shopping with friends is more fun." Pair this certainty — backed up by many an '80s film montage — with modern technology, and you get a setup that is hopefully fairly obvious: You download the (free) iPhone app, log in via your Facebook account, and start scanning stuff. Anything with a barcode is fair game, and as you scan, you log items: some you own, some you're buying now, some you recommend, and some you want to save on a wishlist. It's like turning the whole world into an Amazon.com shopping spree.
But unlike other Internet-facilitated shopping experiences, this one gives you points every time you scan an item. In the viral GPS game/network Foursquare, you become "mayor" of any shop, restaurant or other locale that you frequent more than most. The same basic idea is at work here, minus the requirement to actually leave your house. If you scan enough to get 25 points in a given category, you become "duke." (I am currently a "duke of tea.") Bring in more points than anyone else and you're crowned king or queen. (I hope to one day be "king of breakroom refreshments.")
On the iTunes App Store for barely a week, it's already getting an even distribution of "love it" and "hate it" ratings. The user TinyLittle Engine — who happens to be the "king of rum" — calls it the "first fun social shopping app," citing both comparison shopping and recommendations from friends as key features. Another user, Racheljtm, sees "lots of potential." "I can see what my friends have already purchased so I don't buy them a duplicate gift!" she exclaims. She seems to be a big gift giver, not to mention someone with a deep trust in her friends' ability to participate completely in such online gimmicks.
Most haters cite the app's requirement of signing in through Facebook — and, alas, it's frustrating that there's no other way to use the app. Reviewers are particularly concerned that the service can access FB information "when I'm not using the application," though that probably sounds more sinister than it is. Assuming participants are aware of their own information sharing (and why else would you do it if not to share information?), my only real beef here is that you can't turn off your account without e-mailing Kima Labs' Barcode Hero help line. Quitting online services is often more complicated than it should be and this appears to be no different.
The only non-Facebook complaints are from people who are not the targets. To them it is either "pointless," scanning things you can see before you, or "not what it seems," that the game gets in the way of the shopping tool, leaving something cumbersome and not terribly helpful.
But for people who enjoy a bit of interaction, what you lose in streamlined shopping assistance, you gain in sheer addictiveness. There's an immediate sense of accomplishment when you scan a barcode. You can actually see the points racking up, as if it was some kind of physical transference. Though during the first few weeks, Kima Labs will be giving away wishlist items to random winners to celebrate the service's launch, there's no monetary pay off. What do you get? "Fame, glory and influence," says the Barcode Hero FAQ.
While that's debatable, it's clear that this program doesn't need too much incentive to pull in participants. I said not long ago that we loathe advertising except when we love it. This is a prime example of us opting in. "In the future, we may have promotions, offers or sponsorships in Barcode Hero," says the service, "and we'll use your data to help connect you with the most relevant promotions you won't want to miss."
In his DICE 2010 game developer lecture, Carnegie Mellon "entertainment technology" professor Jesse Schell explained that in our (near) future, everything we do will be part of an ad-sponsored game — the food we eat, the liquids we drink, the parks we visit, the public transit we choose to take — everything will get us "points," a la Barcode Hero and Foursquare. If you want to be freaked out, watch the lecture — it's a 30-minute ride through a super-commercialized dystopia where he who has the most points wins.
Schell's certain that this is the future, and although it reminds me all too much of Mike Judge's "Idiocracy," Schell's not sure it's necessarily negative. "It could be that these systems are all just crass commercialization and it's terrible," said Schell, "but it's possible that they will inspire us to be better people."
If Barcode Hero can tell you everything you have, and everything you don't, maybe it will help you measure yourself against your peers, say, in literature or music. That is, until you're crowned king, and get to lord it over everybody.
Catch up with Wilson on Twitter at . And if you happen to become "king of tea," he promises to address you as "your highness." But only once.