When astrophysicist Geoff Rhoads wanted to protect his photographs of planets from online theft in the mid-1990s, he developed watermarking technology that would help him keep track of the images he posted to the Internet. The antipiracy technology formed the basis for his company Digimarc.
Sixteen years and approximately 600 patents later (and another 400 patents pending), Digimarc hasn't exactly helped movie studios and record labels put digital pirates out of business yet, but it's on the verge of providing some interesting applications to smartphone users. And it could help print media companies tap into some much-needed but elusive online revenue.
Digital watermarking "is the future of media in all forms," said Jeri Owen, vice president of marketing for Digimarc, which is based in Beaverton, Ore. "Media industries today can't monitor new usage models to see where consumers are accessing content, what they are doing with it and what happens when it ends up on the Web...Print, movies, television, they've all lost control."
At Digimarc's booth at Mobile World Congress 2011 in Barcelona, Spain, two weeks ago, Owen was demonstrating how an invisible digital watermark in an image in a newspaper or magazine can provide a reader with pricing information or product reviews, for instance, when viewed by a smartphone with an app that allows the mobile device to see the mark.
It's the digital version of a barcode. But in this case, the mark doesn't take up any space on the page. It is hidden from the human eye and read from a mobile device instead of a specialized barcode scanner. And it can be used for a multitude of purposes, such as directing consumers to a merchant's Web site, displaying coupons, or allowing readers to comment on an article, image, or ad.
Volkswagen is using watermark technology to provide an interactive experience for readers of its magazines in Europe, offering a virtual test drive and video tours of the inside and outside of its cars, while Spanish car magazine Autofacil has been using the technology to allow readers with smartphones to build their own car within a mobile app.
"The (barcode scanning-type) technology has been around for a few years," but hasn't taken off, partially because it didn't always work right and it lacked standardization, said Chuck McCullagh, a publishing consultant who formerly was a senior vice president at the Association of Magazine Media (formerly Magazine Publishers of America). More precise watermarking technology and mobile apps will help solve those problems.
"Publishers have been looking at ways to deepen and extend the print experience. I think this mobile scanning is a good way to do it," he said. The Web "is where the money is, the advertisers are there and there is a lot of reader engagement."
Watermark technology also will soon be embedded in packages for medicines and other health care products in stores in North America, Ireland, and the Caribbean under an exclusive deal Digimarc has signed with packaging printer Catalent Pharma Solutions, Owen told CNET. This will allow merchants to offer a way for customers to get more detailed information, refill prescriptions and even call a doctor, all by scanning the mark on the outside of a box. Companies also will have a way to information customers about product recalls and remind patients to take their medicines, she said.
The print business is only one that Digimarc is going after. Digital audio and video are even more obvious targets. Television audience ratings firm Nielsen licenses Digimarc technology and is using watermarking in broadcast programming for measurement purposes.
Meanwhile a new iPad app listens for the digital watermarks in the television programs being played on a TV or other display and offers bonus material to shows. For instance, Grey's Anatomy fans can get background information on particular episodes as they are watching them, participate in surveys and communicate with friends on Facebook or Twitter about the program.
Digital watermarking is used to help keep track of specific copies of Academy Award nominated movies that are sent to judges and movies shown in theaters, as well as forensics tracking for newly released music, Owen said. Future applications could "enable artists to engage with fans," she said.
Pretty much anything can be watermarked. Driver's licenses have watermarks. Toyota even uses watermarking to authenticate car parts and for inventory control.
Watermarking effectively applies a digital label, or a unique identifier, to an object or piece of content. This is done by manipulating the "noise" in the content and structuring it so it is readable by a computer. For images, pixel values can be adjusted slightly and repeated throughout an entire image or every frame for video. For music, an audio watermark can be hidden in the echoes of other sounds, a millisecond window of opportunity in which the human ear is deaf to anything other than the initial distraction.
Unlike other forms of barcode scanning and fingerprinting technologies, digital watermarking works with content that has been transferred between digital and analog formats. Any object can be tagged with a unique identifier that is digitally enabled, according to Tony Rodriguez, chief technology officer of Digimarc. The ubiquity of mobile devices means the smartphone can become a sort of browser for physical items as microphones and cameras in devices turn into sensors that feed into the online world.
"We as a society have become accustomed to having the ability to get immediate engagement with the Internet and things we see digitally. And people are now expecting that with objects, as well," Rodriguez said. "The mobile device brings it all together for us."
Digital watermarking is still in its infancy but will get a huge boost from the mobile industry, said Phil Leigh, chief executive of market research firm Inside Digital Media.
"The mobile phone can [already] help us identify songs and find the best prices for products, but the barcode is ugly and can't provide the same kind of information that is in a picture in a magazine," for instance, Leigh said.
"The advantage of the watermark is it can be embedded into analog and digital streams and physical and electronic streams," he said. "And it's imperceptible. It doesn't deface the media in which it is embedded."
Correction at 8:48 a.m. PT: The article initially misstated Tony Rodriguez's title. He is chief technology officer.