Qwest sent high schoolers scrambling on a technological treasure hunt through 32 blocks of Salt Lake City's urban jungle Saturday for a chance to win $5,000.
The contest, termed ConQwest by its organizers, was as much an adventure through the city for students toting around 15-foot inflatable animals in search of clues as it was an attempt by Qwest to conquer the "huge" teenage market.
"We actually see them as thought leaders . . . families look to their kids (for information about technology)," said Geoff Kann, ConQwest director. "When it comes on down the pike, they'll already know about it."
Utah's largest phone company equipped nearly 125 students from Alta, Granger, Northridge, Skyline and Taylorsville high schools with free T-shirts, water bottles, keychains and backpacks, all emblazoned with Qwest's logo. They also awarded a total of $13,000 to the high schools —$5,000 for Northridge, the winner of the competition, and $2,000 for the other four participating schools.
Although Jill Bridges, student government adviser for Northridge High, recognized the contest was a marketing strategy designed to entice students, she said that everybody won.
"Qwest is using the kids, but the kids are using Qwest," she said.
Qwest will also send popular band Yellowcard to Northridge on Dec. 3 to perform a free concert.
The high school teams of 20 to 25 students each raced from the Gallivan Center at 11 a.m. with camera phones, in search of printed semacodes — digital grids similar to bar codes — placed in hidden locations throughout the city. The semacodes each contained a message that could be decoded. After taking pictures of the semacodes with the camera phones, treasure hunters received clues and points in text-message form. The first team that collected 5,000 points won.
Although cell-phone companies have incorporated the technology in parts of Asia and Europe to do everything from informing semacode photographers about the bus schedule to the freshness of packaged fish, it is relatively new to the United States.
"It's barely on the fringes of American consciousness," Kann said.
Qwest predicts that sooner or later, American teens could be using camera phones and semacodes in everyday life to buy concert tickets, get extra information about food in the grocery store or send secret messages to one another.
"We're betting that it's going to become popular," Kann said.
And evidence suggests that it just might.
Jill Bridges, a student government adviser at Northridge, said she sees "huge amounts" of cell phones at school. And according to Qwest, 20 percent of its customers are 10 to 24 years old. Some of them spend more money on phones than on CDs or even clothes, traditional hot products of the generation. Given the popularity of cell phones among high school students, a semacode explosion might be just around the corner.
Quinn Davidson, Landon Stoker and Josh Drean, Northridge students who each pay for their own cell phone, said they would be willing to fork out an additional $5 to $20 per month if semacodes were "all over the place." But they hinted that the technology would have to improve.
"We took like 20 pictures and sent them, and a bunch would come back no good," Drean said.
The Northridge students decided to donate their winning prize money to the Christmas Box House, which provides services and shelter to abused children.