Hip to be Square
2D barcodes give consumers instant access to your info
If you look closely at billboards, brochures and print advertising you will soon likely start seeing these odd black-and-white patterned squares—2D barcodes. They’re kind of like the 1D barcodes with UPC data we’re used to seeing on products at the supermarket, but the 2D versions contain a lot more information and they’re aimed at consumers to connect the physical world with the digital. These 2D barcodes are often referred to as QR Codes (for Quick Response, see sidebar for example).
And unlike the cashier at the grocery store, you won’t need to carry a laser scanner in your pocket. You’ll be able to just take a picture of the barcode with your smartphone and it will instantly connect you to a website or video with more information about the item it is tagging.
Think of these 2D barcodes much like hyperlinks on web pages in your desktop PC browser. Except now, if you’re out shopping or walking around and you spot something that interests you, you can surf the web to pinpoint instant, relevant information just by taking a quick snapshot. No more trying to peck out ww.longWEBaddress.com/evenlonger on that teeny keyboard—just point the camera and click.
What it’s used for:
Wildly popular in Japan, 2D barcodes are only now beginning to appear in the U.S. and Europe. In Tokyo if want to know where to buy those jeans shown in the poster on the subway, just take a snapshot of the 2D code. Or if you want to get the nutritional information on the Big Mac you just purchased—take a picture of the 2D code on the wrapper. At the supermarket, you can take a shot of the 2D code on a package of lettuce and you’ll immediately get back a load of details: pictures of the farm, the family running it, exactly where it was grown, when it was harvested and what fertilizer and insecticides were used.
Here in the U.S., a growing number of major brands have been experimenting with 2D barcode pilot programs. For example, Ralph Lauren has been running full-page ads on clothing in major newspapers along with 2D codes for specific items. JCPenny is experimenting with digital coupons and Starbucks has an iPhone app that converts its gift cards into scannable 2D barcodes.
Example of 2D barcode
This type of 2D barcode is called a QR Code. This QR Code takes you to the Franchise Times website.
While there are multiple forms of 2D barcodes, most software will be able to automatically recognize the major versions.
To get an app for your smartphone you can search Google or go to the app store for your phone. Or, you can go to www.i-nigma.mobi on your mobile. This will automatically identify your handset type, download and install the barcode reader software.
To create your own 2D codes – there are many sites, try a search in Google. Or you can use: http://qrcode.kaywa.com/
There are hundreds of other small scale implementations ranging from 2D codes on business cards, to barcodes on museum displays, and even personalized 2D barcode tattoos for wherever you’d like to place them on your body. And in Texas, the town of Manor has fully embraced the concept by placing large 2D codes on every sign, public building, town vehicle and more.
Understandably, magazines and newspapers are also excited about this technology as options for both advertisers and consumers.
Despite the potential, widespread adoption by Americans won’t take place until a few key problems are solved. The primary issue is that it’s just too cumbersome for most people. Today, consumers need to find the right software for their camera phone, then download and install it themselves. The major factor driving adoption in Japan was that the cell phone companies built the software into virtually every phone sold there since the early 2000s—making it a “no-brainer.”
Next, we need to have a robust ecosystem to support companies looking to take advantage of the technology. This is just forming here in the U.S., but the pace is rapid. Marketers are adding QR code strategies to their portfolios. Technology companies are gearing up to provide the IT tools and infrastructure needed to deploy, manage and track them.
QR and other 2D barcodes are an innovative way of connecting static information with an interactive experience by providing users with immediate additional relevant information at a place and time when it is most valuable. It’s time for most businesses to start thinking about how this technology might apply to them. The best thing is to try out some small-scale pilot tests. This will give you some experience with the technology and help you understand the obstacles as well as the potential to your organization.
There are many signs that this technology is about to take off. The number of iPhones and Android smartphones in use is large and rapidly increasing. App stores are making it simple to add the software needed to your phone. And the really big tech companies have identified this as a major opportunity, with Google, Microsoft and Facebook all announcing significant initiatives around 2D codes.
Ultimately, there will be a mix of mundane yet very useful services—such as airline check-in and boarding passes via scannable QR codes right on your mobile display. But what will really drive adoption is when some creative folks come up with a truly awesome application that captivates the public and everyone flocks to participate. I’m not sure what that is, but I have confidence that our imaginations will deliver.
Roman Lubynsky is a technology consultant based in Boston. A frequent speaker and writer on technology topics, he has an MS in Management of Technology from MIT. Roman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.