How QR codes work

how-do-qr-codes-work

You’re familiar with QR (Quick Response) codes, right? They’re those pixelated black-and-white printed squares that look like one of the defense blocks at the bottom of a late 1970s-era “Space Invaders” screen after you’ve shot them up pretty good (or, maybe better, a geek’s Rorschach test).

I’ll bet you’ve seen them around Austin, especially during South by Southwest, when they appeared on clothing, posters, fliers, stickers and hats. And now they’re beginning to pop up everywhere. You’ll find them on business cards and in advertising. You’ll see them at restaurants and big-box stores. And they frequently appear on band and theater posters plastered on bulletin boards at coffee shops and bookstores.

The technology was created in Japan in 1994, when a Toyota subsidiary used it to track auto parts. A QR code is like the familiar bar codes you’re used to seeing on supermarket products, but it can store several hundred times more information than the standard bar code’s 20 or so digits.

But what good is a barcode — even a fancy, high-tech barcode — to you?

Think of QR codes as triggers that direct your phone to perform actions or access information without requiring you to type anything. In their most basic use, the codes act as visual shorthand for Web addresses — open up a QR code reader app on your phone, point its camera at the graphic and you’ll be taken to a specific web page. A business could use the technology to direct users to its home page; Austin bands, including soul outfit LZ Love, have slapped QR codes onto posters that, once scanned, direct a phone to a YouTube video of a live performance.

But the technology goes far beyond just saving you the bother of typing in a Web address.

The codes can trigger actions on the phones themselves. A theater company or charity might embed event information into a QR code; upon scanning, the performance’s date, time, etc., would be added to your phone’s calendar.

The codes also can open your phone’s maps application and provide directions to a destination. Contact information can be embedded, too. Scanning the code from a business card might add a person’s name and phone number to your phone’s address book.

QR codes can trigger phones to send text or email messages (handy, for example, if an advertiser wants to provide an easy way for consumers to ask questions). And they can just deliver plain text to your phone, like the sample code I created for this story.

So why did it take the technology so long to catch on here? Tim Hayden, chief marketing officer and co-founder of 44Doors, an Austin company that provides apps, social media and other services for companies, first encountered the technology at SXSW in 2009.

“That was the first time I saw them, and I discounted them,” Hayden recalls. “At that time, it was unnatural.” He says the reason we’re seeing the buzz and the hype around QR codes now is that our hardware has caught up to the technology — more of us have smartphones with Web browsers and high-resolution cameras.

Hayden says companies have yet to exploit the potential of the technology.

“Where a lot of marketers are missing the opportunity is that they’re simply slapping a QR code on a business card, a brochure, a magazine ad, and they’re having it drive to their regular website,” he says. “And most times that website is not optimized for mobile devices.”

Some, though, are finding creative uses for the codes. Hayden shares an anecdote about a winery that his firm works with. The company has QR codes on its bottles’ neck tags. The information delivered when the codes are scanned varies based on the location reported by the consumer’s phone. Somebody scanning the code in Boston, Hayden says, might be taken to a Web page with seafood or chowder recipes. In Houston, a scan might result in information about chili or Mexican food and chardonnay.

There are anecdotes about young job seekers wearing T-shirts emblazoned with QR codes to job interviews — scanning takes their interviewers to an online résumé.

In Japan and South Korea, the codes are much more prevalent. A Seoul, South Korea, subway contains a virtual grocery store where commuters can scan QR codes from photos of shelves of groceries and have them delivered to their homes. In Japan, mourners can place a QR code on a loved one’s grave marker, which leads to a memorial site, a practice that has spread to Israel, according to Mashable.com. USA Today reported that a Seattle monument maker has been making headstones with the codes for several months and will add them to existing markers for $65.

It’s unlikely, though, that the technology will last as long as those monuments. Hayden says some phones debuting this year will include Near Field Communications technology, which will be able to transmit or receive information when you simply wave the phone near a sticker or sign that has the ability to speak to the phone. “You won’t have to point your camera anymore,” he says. He adds that QR codes will probably have a two- to three-year life cycle of being a dominant technology before NFC and other technologies take over, but adds that “as long as there are URLs, there will be QR codes.”