QR tags beyond the hypeQR tags are hot. When you google them the first results page contains the wikipedia page explaining what QR codes are but also no less than three articles from marketeers marking QR as “the next big thing” or “trends to look out for in 2011″. In my opinion such a google result indicates that a technology is a hype rather than just a trend, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Gartner positions it at the top of their next hype cycle, the ‘peak of inflated expectations’.
In this post I’ll try to look beyond the hype. After the peak of inflated expectations we will eventually get to the ‘plateau of productivity’, at which point QR tags will have become mainstream. This is the moment when marketeers stop talking about it and we simply use it as part of our applications (this is a good indicator – the same happened to terms such as ajax and web 2.0). I will discuss the three major ways QR tags are applied. I hope the analysis inspires people to come up with innovative applications of QR codes.
QR codes with human readable information
A QR tag can contain arbitrary information. At first sight there are not a lot of use cases to encode human readable data in a QR tag: the QR tag on a box of cereal that contains a joke or riddle is a nice gimmick, but one has to ask if opening a scanning application to read something that could’ve been printed on the box itself is worth the hassle. It is a great way of letting people get used to QR codes though and to get acquainted with how they work.
I have identified a number of reasons to encode human readable data in a QR code:
- Obfuscation; hiding text for example for games, quizes and treasure hunts. Not to be confused with encryption; anyone with a QR scanner can easily decode and read it. Think of this as a digital fortune cookie.
- Compression; a QR can contain an amount of text that is larger than the QR itself. If you need to convey a larger amount of text and you only have a square inch of space, you could display a QR code instead.
- Portablity; people like to be able to process text, for example email, copy or tweet it. This is traditionally impossible with printed text, one has to actually type it. Displaying a QR with the same text in digital form allows a user to capture the digital version on his or her phone and process it digitally, or simply store it for later use.
- Marketing; as long as QRs are hype, people may simply want to show how modern they are by using QR tags. Note that this is the most dangerous argument. If its use doesn’t fall into any of the other categories, then the appliation is likely to just annoy the user.
QR codes with structured, standardized information
A more useful application of QR codes is to fill them with machine readable information. The most common example is to encode a URL into a QR code. The user scans the code, and the scanning application opens the browser with a specific website.
Another commonly used data structure is the vCard. This is a format to store business card information. Most phones are capable of processing vCards and importing them directly into the phone’s contact list. This makes them an ideal candidate for business cards. It’s easy to create a QR code for a business card using this tool. Standards wouldn’t be standards however if there wasn’t some kind of incompatibility issue: not every phone understands vCards. An alternative is the Mecard. You can generate a mecard using this tool. Mecards are directly importable as iPhone contacts on the iPhone, but some other phones may not support the format.Other useful data structures are: calendar events, map locations or pre-defined emails. Did you know it’s even possible to encode a wifi network identification as a QR code? Allow people to scan a code at a conference to easily connect to the wifi. Support for such lesser known data formats depends not only on the manufacturer of the barcode scanning application you are using, but also on the phone being used. It will take a while before applications like this catch on. The fact that a QR code on a business card is still considered ‘sexy’ will however hopefully aid adoption of QR codes for structured data.
QR codes with application specific data
The third application area of QR codes is the least commonly used, but potentially the most powerful one. Since QR codes can be used to transmit any data, we can make specific applications to recognize specific types of data. At Egeniq we use this method for example to authenticate users in a security application.
The key to this way of working with QR codes is to integrate the QR scanner into a mobile application that understands how to process the data in specific codes. Arbitrary QR code scanners would simply see the structured data without being able to interpret it. While this may seem a disadvantage, it is actually a great way to integrate QR codes in a non-intrusive way into existing applications. (And good to know: there are ways to have it both ways – we can encode QR codes that a generic QR code application can automatically forward to an application that is able to understand the data).
Here are some example applications:
- A public transport company could add a scanner into their time table application. Scanning a code on a train or bus with the application would then navigate directly to the time table for this train (no need to ask someone ‘is this train going to Santa Clara?’).
- A console game could display a QR code that a gamer could scan with the mobile version of the same game, for example to exchange saved games or to use ‘second screen’ functionality such as game statistics during play.
- An e-commerce app could scan a product QR code that directly adds a specific discount to your basket.
- Furniture retailers could display QR codes in their catalogue that, when scanned with their mobile app, would generate a shopping basket, direct them to the right location within the physical store or directly order the item.
- Scanning a QR code on a delivery package could display package details right in the app of the delivery company.
An important advantage of in-app QR scanning is that users do not need to worry about getting the right scanning app, and with simple instructions they can use the functionality directly from their apps when it makes sense. Adoption of QR codes, when built right into the applications, is then a no-brainer.
There are many ways to make use of QR codes. In this article I have highlighted a number of application areas. As the technology evolves and more and more devices get native QR code scanning abilities, we will see applications move beyond simple human readable text or QR codes containing URLs. When that happens companies can create an experience that enhances user comfort and that has added value for both the users and the company itself.
At Egeniq, we have experience with using QR codes in a number of ways; if you need help finding out how you could benefit from this technology, feel free to contact us.