Clif Notes: They're Everywhere! (Well, Not Quite Yet)

I see QR codes.

But unlike the ghosts of dead people, these things are present in our external reality. And I'm not alone. Lots of people see them, including the attendees at the 2011 International Spectrum conference. You see them too. Look up at the top of this page. See that square checkerboard thing? That's a QR code.

The QR "Quick Response" code is a bar code that allows you to store text messages, web site URLs, contact vCards, and other things in a form that can be easily scanned and acted on by a QR code reader. Such scanning software is readily available for smartphones.

Developed by the Denso-Wave subsidiary of the Toyota Corporation in 1994, they have become very popular in Japan. Of course, anything having to do with a mobile phone is always a big hit in Japan, including little electric wheels and leashes so you can walk them next to you like a pet. (Okay, I'm exaggerating. The pets are simply apps that you have to care for or they die.) They are just starting to take hold in other countries, including the United States. If you don't know what they are, you tend to look right over them without even noticing. But as their use increases, you will begin to see them popping up all over the place. So, you might ask, what good are they?

Not a darn thing.

That is, not in and of themselves. But people are beginning to find some interesting uses for them. For example, Google sends out window decals to businesses identified as a Favorite Place. On the decal was a QR code that would link to the business's page where you can read or write reviews, be informed of special promotions available to them, or mark the business as a Favorite.

You can include your contact information in vCard format on your business card. Scan the code and your contact information is automatically added to the reader's address book. Or use it to store a web site address that takes them to your product catalog or a product demo on YouTube.

You may be planning on buying a house. One day while you're out driving around, and you spot the absolutely perfect place with a For Sale sign in front of it. Underneath the For Sale sign there is a box meant for information brochures about the property, a few interior pictures, and who to contact. Of course, the box is empty. Take a close look at the For Sale sign. Some real estate agents are now printing a QR code on it. Scan it with your phone, and the next thing you know, you are looking at all the listing info for the dream house you are standing in front of.

Calvin Klein once put a large QR code on a billboard. When folks would scan it with their phone, it would launch an advertisement that was, shall we say, "spicy." (I bet some of the implications of this kind of use has some attorneys salivating.) But it gets better.

In some regions, McDonald's uses QR codes on its product packaging so people can link to nutritional information about the product they are ingesting. I find it ironic, however, that you have to buy the product in order to get the packaging that has the QR code that gives you the information so that you can determine whether or not you want to buy the product.

And in Japan, some people are putting QR codes on tombs. (What did I tell you?) Scan it with your phone and get information about the deceased.

There you have it. QR codes really can help you see dead people.

Until recently, the discussion of QR codes and smart phones have been closely tied together. Enter the tablet.

One of the problems with digital publishing is that you either needed a notebook/netbook computer or a dedicated e-book reader to take advantage of it in anything other than prose form. I mean, you might read a novel on your phone using your Kindle app (I do), but if we publish a 50 line code example, are you really going to try to read that with that tiny screen on your phone? Not likely. PDF format works for some people, and they even prefer it. That is one of the reasons why International Spectrum magazine is available for download in PDF format. But again, until recently, you needed a notebook or desktop computer to read it.

But the advent of the tablet changes that. Of course, tablets are not as wide spread as phones. And a lot of readers don't have smart phones, some because of the cost of digital plans, some by choice. So paper is still a fact of life. Still, the advantages of digital cannot be ignored.

So as of the last issue, you will note that each article in the magazine has a QR code that links you to the online version of that article. See an article that you want to read on the train during the commute home? Scan the QR code and bookmark it. Leave the magazine at the office. Frankly, we are experimenting, so watch for other uses as we test the waters.

Some of our advertisers have started including QR codes in their ads. They can provide you with more detailed product information or demonstration videos. It's kind of a hybrid., sort of a paper hyperlink.

We are also using them at this year's conference. Since I am writing this in advance of the conference, I don't want to go into any details and spoil the surprise. But for those of you who aren't able to join us, we will let you know what you missed in our Recap article in the next issue.

So what are QR codes used for? That is primarily limited by your imagination. Sometimes at the various evening functions at the conference, such as the Sneak Peek evening, some form of entertainment is available, like a magician specializing in close-up sleight-of-hand. I offered one of my own suggestions for this year's conference. Unfortunately, the management of both International Spectrum and the hotel were in agreement that an event having a no-host bar, QR codes, and a tattoo artist was a bad combination.

Clif Oliver

View more articles


Mar/Apr 2011