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Room for Squares: Are Mag Tags the New Frontier?

March 6, 2010

As we have already established, I am a sucker for travel magazines.  I am also a sucker for anything that features the Hong Kong skyline.  Thus, it is really no surprise that the current issue of Conde Nast Traveler found its way into my hands and home.

Once past the dazzle of the skyline (note: for junkies like me, there is “Shang Kong”, a skyline centerfold double feature on p. 118 that juxtaposes Shanghai and Hong Kong), the first thing that caught my attention was a sprinkling throughout the magazine of computer chip-like squares with black and white geometric patterns- 13 of them in all, each slightly different.

A sidebar on the Editor’s page explains that these chop-like marks are Microsoft Tags that will allow you to access videos with additional magazine content from your smartphone.

Not being a techno-buff, this seemed just trippy enough to me that I had to try it.

Microsoft Tag Reader, it turns out, is downloadable for free at Once the app is on your phone, all you need to do is point your phone’s camera at any one of these little squares and the phone reads it as the secret password to gain access to the extra video and web content.  I have to admit that it feels kind of James Bond-y, and I like it.

That said, if this issue is any indication, certain features work better than others for ‘expanding the boundaries of Conde Nast Traveler’. The March issue is the first to employ this technology, and given that I think it has great potential for injecting some life into an ailing print culture, I am more than willing to cut the magazine some slack. That said, here are my two cents:

Like it:

  • The Downloadable City Guide: All of the addresses, phone numbers and websites in your phone instantly.  Thumbs up.
  • A Sneak Peak behind the Featured Article: The featured article in question was a Rob Howard’s four-pager on the rainforests of Guyana.  My apologies to Rob, but I was not planning to read it– until I watched his clip. The three-minute expose gave me a sense of the journalist and piqued my curiosity enough to make the kind of long-term commitment required for a four-page read… For once maybe technology will help increase attention span?
  • How to: Susan Hack spices up her feature-length article on Oman with a short lesson on how to tie a shemagh- the traditional Omani head scarf. It’s the perfect extra perk, made better by the fact that it takes advantage of a different medium to do something that would be awkward on the page.

Lump it:

  • Fashion Victim: “For more details on this Bottega Veneta dress, snap this tag”.  The tag, as it turns out, shows a model walking the runway in the dress.  I’ll let it slide this issue because I still felt like Bond, but frankly, those ‘details’ were a little blond for my taste.
  • The Medium is the Message: Many of the features paired voices with a montage of photographs.  If you are going to encourage the reader to hit their smartphone, be smart about it and produce features that, like Susan Hall’s Oman feature, take advantage of the capabilities of a different medium- ie: more moving images, please.

Preliminary Verdict:

Count me in.  With the free app, the mag tags are a fun way to expand the frame and enliven the readers experience.  But they can’t be an afterthought or a crutch. Tags must not become condiments to spice up bland writing.  In my view they need to be dessert- that extra bite that finishes off an otherwise satisfying meal, but makes it better, and more memorable.

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