barcode 2.0 brings the world to your smartphone

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barcode.jpgWho would have thought that a small monochromatic set of squares could have such a big impact on everything from marketing to literature? QR codes–a variation on traditional barcodes first invented in 1994–are appearing all over the Western world after initially appearing in Japan.

By encoding different sets of characters inside a standard square format, it becomes possible to communicate a wide range of different information to anyone with a scanner. Many camera-enabled smart phones (such as Androids, Blackberrys and Symbians), come with these scanners already encoded into their software, while for others like Apple, downloadable third-party apps fill the gap.

Simply pointing the camera's phone at a QR code automatically reads the content therein. Depending on the content, a QR code can make a smart phone do everything from displaying a simple text message through to entering a contact into the phone's database, or scheduling an event in its calendar. Smart phones can also be made to call up a website, or pinpoint a pre-encoded location on a map.

This raises the prospect of what advocates call ‘hard linking’; the association of digital links with real-world objects and locations. Suddenly, hidden data can be printed on posters, or affixed to products. Business cards can become treasured troves of embedded information. Everything from street signs through to clothes can be given new meaning simply by printing these patterns on them. Even gravestones are now being fitted with QR codes, to take visitors to social network sites that contain more information about the deceased.

QR codes can be embedded in print advertisements, enabling readers to automatically download relevant applications to a phone, or play video. The marketing opportunities in these smart codes are almost limitless.

QR codes are not the only hard linking mechanism available. For several years now, Microsoft has offered the alternative ‘Tag’, which is designed to be simpler to print than QR codes, and more readily readable, even by low resolution cameras. However, on the streets, these have seen limited uptake relative to QR codes.

As QR codes continue to proliferate, we can look forward to a new, information rich world in which tourists can scan codes to find out more about the locations that they're visiting. Conference attendees with a QR code on their laminated badges could present information about their background and interests to other attendees with a simple camera scan. Packaging labels for popular foods could make dozens of recipes available to customers who simply scan them with their phones. In the 21st-century, the humble barcode has finally grown up.

Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.