High Capacity Color Barcode (HCCB) & Microsoft Tags: Former Alternative of Colorful QR Codes

Gunel Ismayilova

Jan 08, 2024

14 min read

The HCCB Code, short for High Capacity Color Barcode, is a specialized 2D color barcode technology developed by Microsoft. The HCCB uses clusters of colored triangles rather than the square pixels used in conventional 2D barcodes or QR codes, which allows for higher data density and excellent data storage (approximately 3,500 characters per square inch).


The HCCB Code (High Capacity Color Barcode) works by encoding data using clusters of colored triangles in a 2D grid. The HCCB code is designed to efficiently store and represent information in a visual format scanned and decoded by specialized software or application.


HCCB codes come in different types, including eight-color, four-color, and two-color variations, with varying grid sizes and symbol densities to suit different data encoding needs.


The advantages of HCCB codes include high data density, colorful and visually engaging design, flexibility for customization, and analytics and tracking capabilities for enhanced user insights.


The disadvantages of HCCB codes include limited adoption, the need for specialized software for scanning, and their visual complexity, which is confusing for users accustomed to traditional barcodes.


What is the HCCB Code?

The HCCB Code, short for High Capacity Color Barcode, is a specialized 2D color barcode technology developed by Microsoft. The HCCB uses clusters of colored triangles rather than the square pixels used in conventional 2D barcodes or QR codes, which allows for higher data density and more excellent data storage (approximately 3,500 characters per square inch).


The HCCB Code technology was created by Gavin Jancke, an engineering director at Microsoft Research. Microsoft was the organization behind the development of HCCB, but other experts had contributed to its development.


The primary objective of HCCB's existence was to provide an innovative means of encoding and decoding data, particularly for scenarios where space was limited and high data density was essential. The colored barcode was designed to be a complementary technology to traditional barcodes rather than a replacement. HCCB aimed to offer a more efficient and versatile method of encoding information when conventional barcodes do not suffice. One notable implementation of HCCB was the Microsoft Tag, which allowed users to scan HCCB codes to access various types of information, such as URLs, contact details, and multimedia content. The MS tag technology bridges physical objects and digital content, enhancing user engagement and interaction.


How Does the HCCB Code Work?

The HCCB Code (High Capacity Color Barcode) works by encoding data using clusters of colored triangles in a 2D grid. The HCCB code is designed to efficiently store and represent information in a visual format scanned and decoded by specialized software or application.


HCCB code is created by encoding data in it. The data include text, URLs, contact information, or any other data that needs to be represented. The next step involves assigning colors to the triangles in the grid. The code uses a palette of four, eight, or two colors (black and white) depending on the application and desired data density. The choice of colors and arrangement is part of the encoding process. The colored triangles are then arranged in a grid format to form the HCCB code. The arrangement of triangles and colors represents the encoded data.


HCCB codes are scanned and decoded using a camera-equipped device with compatible software or applications like Microsoft Tag reader. The user's device, such as a smartphone or tablet, uses its camera on the application to capture an image of the HCCB code. The Microsoft Tag reader analyzes the captured image, identifies the colored triangles, and deciphers the arrangement and colors. The MS tag scanner retrieves the encoded data after successfully decoding the HCCB code. The software displays encoded data to the user or takes the appropriate action based on its type. For instance, the Microsoft Tag reader opens a web browser and navigates to the associated website if it's a URL.


The purpose of using HCCB code, as opposed to traditional 1D barcodes, is to provide a more efficient and versatile means of encoding, conveying information, and offering a higher data density. 2D color barcodes store more data in a smaller space than 1D barcodes. Using colored triangles in HCCB allows for a broader range of data representation. Different colors and arrangements convey various information types, making them versatile for applications.


What are the Use Case Applications of the HCCB Code?

The use case applications of the HCCB codes are listed below.


  • Print Advertising: HCCB codes were designed for incorporation into print advertisements, such as magazines, posters, and flyers, to provide readers with easy access to additional information, promotional offers, or multimedia content by scanning the code with a mobile device.
  • Product Packaging: HCCB codes are applicable on product packaging to provide consumers with product details, usage instructions, or links to online resources.
  • In-Store Displays: Retailers benefit from HCCB codes on in-store displays to offer discounts, product reviews, or videos about the displayed products when customers scan the code.
  • Product Authentication: HCCB codes are capable of helping customers verify the authenticity of products by scanning the code to access relevant information.
  • Property Listings: Real estate agents use HCCB codes on "For Sale" signs to provide potential buyers instant access to property details, photos, videos, and contact information.
  • Business Cards: Professionals use HCCB codes that contain vCard information that is scanned to save contact information directly to a phone's address book.
  • Tourist Information: Tourist attractions, hotels, and restaurants use HCCB codes on maps, brochures, and signs to provide tourists with detailed information, directions, and offers.


What are the different types of HCCB Codes?

The different types of HCCB codes are listed below.


  • Types of Colors: HCCB codes come in eight-color, four-color, and two-color types. Eight-color HCCB code uses a palette of eight distinct colors for encoding data, allowing for high data density and detailed representations. Four-color HCCB codes use a reduced color palette but still offer good data density and are more visually distinct than black-and-white codes. Sometimes, HCCB codes use only two colors, typically black and white. The two-color HCCB code simplifies the color scheme while still providing the benefits of HCCB technology.
  • Grid Size Variation: HCCB codes have different grid sizes, determining the number of symbols used. Larger grids accommodate more data but require more space. The size of the triangles on the HCCB code varies.
  • Symbol Density: Symbol density refers to the size of the triangles within the code. Symbol density is adjusted to control the overall size of the code and its readability when scanned, depending on the application.


When Did the HCCB Code Originate?

The HCCB (High Capacity Color Barcode) technology was developed by Microsoft Research in 2007. Gavin Jancke, an engineering director at Microsoft Research, led the development of HCCB technology. Work on the HCCB technology likely began a few years before its public introduction. Microsoft Tag, which used HCCB technology, was officially launched and announced publicly in 2007 as well. The implementation allowed users to create and scan color barcodes for various applications, including marketing and information sharing.


Where Is the HCCB Code Used Today?

The usage of HCCB (High Capacity Color Barcode) codes has significantly declined and is not used today. The discontinuation of Microsoft Tag was announced in 2013, with its service terminated in 2015. Consequently, the use of HCCB technology is no longer prevalent in the digital and marketing landscape. Businesses and organizations instead utilize colored QR codes for encoding data and interacting with consumers.


How Can the HCCB Code Be Scanned?

The HCCB (High Capacity Color Barcode) code can be scanned using a compatible scanner in smartphones or other mobile devices. The Microsoft Tag reader application was a notable example of software designed to scan and decode HCCB codes. Users must download and install the Microsoft Tag Reader application on their Internet-capable mobile devices. A device's camera must be pointed at an HCCB code, resulting in the reader application capturing and decoding the code, providing access to the encoded information. Other third-party applications exist to scan HCCB codes, but the MS tag scanner was a well-known and widely used example when it was active.


What are the Advantages of the HCCB Code?

The advantages of the HCCB code are listed below.


  • High Data Density: HCCB codes store about 3,500 characters per square inch in a relatively small area. High data density makes them valuable for applications where a large amount of information needs to be encoded, such as URLs, videos, contact details, or multimedia content.
  • Colorful and Visually Engaging: Using colored triangles in HCCB codes makes them visually appealing and easily distinguishable. Colored bar codes help capture users' attention and enhance engagement with printed materials or products.
  • Flexibility: HCCB technology allows for using various 4-color palettes, grid sizes, and symbol densities. It means HCCB codes are customizable to suit different applications and design preferences. Organizations and businesses create custom HCCB codes tailored to their needs, including branding and content. The customization helps convey a consistent message and enhance brand recognition.
  • Analytics and Tracking: Some implementations of HCCB technology, like Microsoft Tag, offered analytics and tracking capabilities. It allowed businesses to gather data on user interactions with the codes, helping them understand user behavior and campaign effectiveness.


What are the Disadvantages of the HCCB Code?

The disadvantages of the HCCB code are listed below.


  • Limited Adoption: One of the significant disadvantages of HCCB technology is its limited adoption and use. It did not gain the same level of widespread acceptance as black-and-white or colorful QR codes, making it less recognizable to the general public.
  • Need for Specialized Software: Scanning HCCB codes requires specialized software or applications, such as the Microsoft Tag reader. The dependency on specific software limits the accessibility of HCCB codes for users who do not have the necessary application installed on their devices.
  • Visual Complexity: HCCB codes are visually engaging, but they appear complicated and confusing to users when compared to traditional barcodes with their simplicity. The complexity leads to users having difficulty understanding and using them appropriately.


How to Generate an HCCB Code

To generate an HCCB Code, follow the provided steps.


  1. Select HCCB generation software. Start by choosing software or an online tool that supports HCCB code generation. Microsoft Tag was a well-known application for generating HCCB codes purpose, but it has been discontinued. Explore alternative tools or consult with barcode-generation experts who provide HCCB code-generation services.
  2. Enter the data to the HCCB code. Identify the data to encode in the HCCB code. It includes URLs, text, contact information, or any other data to make accessible when the code is scanned. Input the data to the HCCB code.
  3. Customize the design (Optional). HCCB codes are customizable based on the software or tool. It involves selecting a color palette, adjusting the grid size, or specifying the symbol density. Customization helps make the code visually appealing or align it with branding guidelines.
  4. Generate the HCCB code. Click the "Generate" or "Create" button within the software or tool after inputting the data and customizing the color barcode. The action generates the HCCB code based on the specifications.
  5. Save or Export the colored code. HCCB codes are saved digitally once they have been generated. Users export code to various file formats using some tools.
  6. Use or Print the code. Use the HCCB code digitally, such as on websites, in electronic documents, or within mobile applications, depending on the purpose. Incorporate the code into the design appropriately if planning to use it in printed materials.
  7. Test the HCCB code. Ensure the HCCB code functions as intended before deploying it in materials or products. Test the HCCB code with the specialized MS tag scanner.


Can an HCCB Code be Scanned by any mobile phone's camera?

Yes, HCCB (High Capacity Color Barcode) codes can be scanned by any mobile phone's camera using only an MS tag reader. MS Tag scanners are capable of recognizing and decoding HCCB codes. Mobile phones’ cameras don’t have built-in HCCB code readers because HCCB codes have been no longer used since 2015. People who want to scan the HCCB code with their phone’s camera need to download the application for scanning the HCCB codes.


Does HCCB Code work on Android Phone?

No. HCCB code doesn’t work on Android phones if it doesn’t have the proper application or software for scanning. High Capacity Color Barcodes are not widely used today, so they do not work on Android phones or any other mobile devices as readily as more commonly used barcode formats like QR codes. The decline in the use of HCCB technology, along with the discontinuation of implementations like Microsoft Tag, has led to a lack of support and recognition for HCCB codes on modern smartphones. Consequently, users are less likely to have dedicated HCCB code scanning applications installed on their Android devices, and the technology has become less relevant in the mobile scanning ecosystem. Default black and white or colorful QR codes have become the preferred method of encoding and decoding data via mobile devices due to their wide adoption and support.


Is the HCCB Code Discontinued?

Yes, HCCB is discontinued, along with its notable implementation called Microsoft Tag. Microsoft Tag was officially discontinued, and its services were terminated on August 19, 2015. The availability and support for HCCB codes, as well as the associated Microsoft Tag reader application, are no longer active or accessible. Organizations and businesses have transitioned to other barcode technologies, such as QR codes, which have become more commonly used for similar data encoding and scanning purposes.


The HCCB Code technology found application in the ScanLife platform, facilitating the creation and use of these color barcodes for marketing and information-sharing purposes. HCCB codes’ objective was to enhance data encoding and accessibility in an increasingly digital world, while HCCB and its implementations have seen discontinuation.


Is the HCCB Code the same as the Microsoft tag?

Yes, the HCCB (High Capacity Color Barcode) code and Microsoft Tag are almost identical. Microsoft Tag is an implementation of the HCCB technology developed by Microsoft. The Microsoft Tag application and system creates and scans color barcodes using HCCB codes.


What is the difference between the HCCB Code and the Microsoft tag?

The primary difference between the HCCB (High Capacity Color Barcode) code and Microsoft Tag lies in their roles. HCCB is the underlying technology developed by Microsoft for encoding data using clusters of colored triangles in a 2D barcode format. It is a general technology for creating color barcodes with high data density, versatility in color palettes, and symbol density adjustments. Microsoft Tag is a specific implementation and application of the HCCB technology created by Microsoft. It uses HCCB codes to generate color barcodes called "Microsoft Tags." Microsoft Tag was designed for marketing and advertising purposes, allowing users to scan tags with a mobile device's camera to access online content such as websites, videos, or contact information. It included analytics and tracking for businesses to monitor user interactions with Tags.


What is the difference between the HCCB Code and the HCC2D Code?

The HCCB (High Capacity Color Barcode) Code and the HCC2D (High Capacity Colored 2-dimensional) Code are two different types of 2D barcode technologies with distinct characteristics.

The differences between the HCCB code and the HCC2D code are listed below.


  • Appearances: HCCB is a 2D barcode technology for encoding data using clusters of colored triangles. It uses colored triangles to represent data and is known for its high data density. HCC2D is another 2D barcode technology that utilizes a matrix of square color cells, using a color palette to achieve higher storage capacity than traditional QR codes. It is designed to store more data while maintaining robustness and reliability.
  • Inventors: HCCB was developed by engineers at Microsoft Research and served as the basis for the Microsoft Tag mobile tagging application. HCC2D was developed by Antonio Grillo, Alessandro Lentini, Marco Querini, and Giuseppe F. Italiano at the University of Tor Vergata in 2014.
  • Recognition and Usage: Microsoft Tag, based on HCCB technology, was officially discontinued in 2015, and its services are no longer operational. It is not actively used today. HCC2D is still in the prototyping phase and has the potential for future adoption in various industries.


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