Opinion and Return on Technology and Manufacturing & Technology and Technology

ALTOM: What's with the modern-art bar codes?

December 3, 2011

Driving past a small business along a street in Indianapolis not long ago, I was distracted by a sign the owners had put out front. It had the usual logo and business name on it, but taking up by far the majority of the space was a big, square bar code. It was one of those that had little squares at three corners, and that are now popping up on print ads, on websites, and even on little signs stuck out in front of small businesses.

The mysterious little squares are actually “QR” codes, for “quick response.” They go back quite a ways. The precursor to the QR code was first released in 1997 by AIM, the Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility (http://www.aimglobal.org/).

As befits something that has taken so long to reach final form, the QR bar code comes in several flavors. All have squares in three corners. Despite the apparent complexity of the patterns, the designers were more concerned with reliability than the amount of data that could be stored in one. The ones you typically see in ads carry from 35 to 395 characters. Only the ultra-detailed QR version 40 can do better, at up to 4,300 characters, but those aren’t in common use.

The big advantage, though, is that the QR bar codes are inherently capable of orienting properly and reading clearly even when the scanner is in motion. Those three squares are for positioning. A fourth square that is smaller and less noticeable is for alignment. Bars within the code give version and format information. The result is a bar code that is so error-resistant, you can actually break one up with words or a logo and it will still read correctly.

And how do you “read” one? With your cell phone. The reliability of a QR bar code means merchants can embed all kinds of things in them, to be read by a cell phone’s scanner app. Once the data is in the phone, it can be used for almost anything. You can encode an e-mail address, a physical address, a website URL, event information, a name or a phone number, for example.

You can write any of these things out, too, of course, but the phone can then put the data immediately to work. It can call the number, find the location, go to the website, or look up the name in your contacts list. I didn’t stop to scan the little sign I spotted, but it probably had some kind of contact information in it. You can even have Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn profiles encoded in QR bar codes.

If you simply want to play around with a QR code, you can get one for free at sites like Tec-IT (http://barcode.tec-it.com) or Wasp (www.waspbarcode.com). Just type in the characters you want encoded and download the finished GIF. If you need to generate more on a regular basis, it’s best to invest in bar code software. I did one with my name on the Tec-IT site, downloaded the GIF image, and can now impress my friends who have scanners.

Still need some more examples to drive home the versatility of QR? Try QRStuff.com (http://www.qrstuff.com), a site that drips with ways to put QR to work. There is a business card with the owner’s Facebook profile, Google Maps link, and a V-Card, in three QR bar codes. A temporary tattoo QR carries customer details for booth scanning at a trade show. A movie poster has a QR that links to a movie trailer. A “for sale” sign has a QR that sends the scanning customer directly to a site that shows the property’s listing. A wedding invitation with a printed QR sends the user to a site that has the RSVP for the event.

You might have picked up by now that QR is meant for the person on the go. It’s a fast way to stitch together the physical world and the handheld universe. It holds little value to someone who spends all day in a cubicle and rarely uses his cell phone except to make calls. For those whose phones are their mini-offices, QR can be a time-saving blessing. It allows data to be rapidly moved from a physical object into an action, if you have the scanner to make use of it. If your phone doesn’t already have a scanner, you can download any number of them from online stores.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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