Forget QR codes: Your touchscreen can “read” this ink

Ever since the smartphone era began, companies have looked for ways to quickly get information from the offline product world onto the phone. Barcode scanning is a popular approach while QR codes and proprietary tags, such as those from Microsoft(s msft), are other less-used solutions. These all require cameras and specifically printed codes; what if we could just use what looks like a standard ink solution and the touchscreen on our phones?

That’s exactly the idea behind Printechnologic’s Touchcode; the German company has developed an electronic print product with interactivity. Printed material using Touchcode technology looks no different than a standard print product, is recyclable and can be used on a range of products, such as tickets, food items, business cards, or nearly anything that you can put ink on. A customizable electronic code embedded in the print process interacts with a phone’s capacitive screen, much like your fingers do, giving the handset a web address or file download, for example. Here’s how the company describes it:

“Touchcode is an invisible electronic code printed on paper, cardboard, film or labels. Just put the product on the display of your smartphone/tablet/multitouch device to read the data – no matter if you’d like to confirm the authenticity of your brand product or make your card game come to life. With Touchcode, you add interactivity to just about any product.”

It’s a simply elegant solution and takes advantage of the growing number of touchscreen devices in the mobile market. DisplaySearch estimates that 2011 saw 566 million touch screen shipments for mobile phones, with rapid expansion going forward. Here’s an interactive video demo showing how Touchcode works and explaining the many possibilities for the product:

I think Touchcode is ingenious because it directly bridges the physical and digital worlds with a medium that’s been used for thousands of years: Ink. The products looks no different than any printed medium today. And they gain the extra characteristic of working with a capacitive touch screen.

Imagine tapping a printed card in Starbucks(s sbux) to your handset for a direct download of the tune currently playing. Maybe a printed concert ticket can open up a web page with the artist’s bio or an advance listen to an upcoming but unpublished song. Or instead of manually logging your food with a barcode, the food packaging itself contains a link to the nutritional values and can log the entry for you while also providing relevant recipes.

The idea behind these interactive codes has really never been the problem in adoption. Instead, the implementations haven’t been quite as universal as they need to be. Near-field communications, or NFC, tags could help, but they require both the tag and a phone with an NFC reader. Barcodes are probably the next best thing up until now, but are an electronic-only solution; unless you’ve learned to “read” a barcode yourself, they add little value alone.

Printed materials with Touchcode technology offer two solutions, however. The printed information itself is understandable by anyone who can read while extra information or links to other data works with a touch-capable smartphone. I’d call that a win all around if Touchcode can get clients to start using its codes during the print process.