Today's item comes from Finland, where the VTT (Valtion Teknillinen Tutkimuskeskus, and much good may it do you) lab in Tampere has developed software that allows a camera phone to scan foods' barcodes and come back with details of their nutritional value. (In the United States you just look at the box for nutritional information, which is mandated by the Food and Drug Administration. It's fun to see a cheap, private solution that goes around a government.)
Many years ago, when the Internet was just coming to U.S. cell phones, I contrived an unnatural marriage between a barcode reader and a phone, then hooked the resulting device up to a server-based "bargain finder" that talked to the online book stores of the day. You could scan any book and the phone's display would come back with a list of retailers who had it and the price each was charging. The idea was that you could then complete an order with the push of a button. (I've noticed that one major U.S.-based bookstore subverts this possibility: They cover books' printed barcodes with different, stick-on barcodes of their own. Other retailers, fearing "bargain phones," might one day follow suit.) I never expected it to happen--who was going to develop cell phones with built-in barcode readers?--but I didn't anticipate that cameras might serve as a substitute technology. Now that it's actually happening, I foresee a vast, insidious infiltration of the Internet into brick-and-mortar retailers as "customers" bring (in effect) Amazon's cash register into every store they visit. New shopping motto: Caveat vendor.