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Technology Untangled: QR codes provide quick info for smartphones

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technology-bourI have been seeing these odd-looking UPC barcode-like patterns in various print media for some time now. These small squares, about one inch in size, usually appear in the corner of a print advertisement or a poster. Sometimes they include instructions about what they are for, but often they do not. These codes are designed to be used with your smartphone, and they open up a new high-tech avenue for marketing of all types.

I have used my smartphone for about a year now, and I am intrigued and impressed on a regular basis by the many ways it can provide practical applications far beyond those of the simple cell phone. Because of its versatility, Popular Mechanics magazine recently ranked the smartphone at number one in its compilation of the best 100 gadgets of all time. In the case of the codes that are the subject of this article, the smartphone becomes a tool for efficiently dispersing information or for marketing goods and services directly to the clients most interested in your offering.

These scan codes are known as QR codes (abbreviated from Quick Response code). While relatively new to smartphones, this type of two-dimensional matrix barcode has actually been in existence since 1994. Its primary purpose was for tracking component parts in manufacturing plants. The recent proliferation of smartphones has opened a growing market for other uses for these codes. The two technologies that bring it together are the smartphone’s camera and its Internet connectivity.

How do you use them? You simply take a picture of the code with your phone, and you are immediately directed to the information source associated with the code. Essentially, it provides a Web browser quick link. The only other thing you need besides your phone is a free code scanning application. These are easily downloadable just like any other smartphone application. The two I use are the QuickMark Code Scanner and the Microsoft TagReader app (http://tag.microsoft.com, or http://gettag.mobi from your phone).

The more colorful Microsoft Tag is the code that recently caught my eye. This type is known as a High Capacity Color Barcode (HCCB). I noticed it on the front page of each section of a USA Today newspaper. The first example scan I tested from the sports section took me directly to a Web page containing all the best sports photos of the day. The next one from the money section took me to detailed financial market information. Of course, surfing the Internet from a phone is commonplace today, but here is why the tags make sense; had I opened the smartphone’s Web browser on my own, I would have had to type in a link containing over 65 characters to see those same photos. Tedious at best and dangerous at worst, given today’s increased scrutiny about texting or manipulating your phone while driving.

While the sports page may be a trivial application, there are many opportunities for practical commercial use. Tags such as these can be added, for example, to real estate signs or billboards, theoretically allowing clients to quickly snap a picture of the code while on the road (although, I don’t suppose it would be all that much safer if you were doing that while actually driving). An attorney could add a code to his business card or print ad, providing a quick link to the law firm Web page, a promotional or instructional video, or to case-specific details for different areas of law. Tags can also be designed to dial a phone number when scanned, display a simple informational text message, or download business contact information directly to a phone. These last few examples do not even require Internet connectivity.

There is one important caveat to using a code scanning application on your phone. The default settings allow marketers to collect location-specific information about you whenever you are snapping a code. Sure, that’s useful for sellers, but to me, it’s still a bit creepy. The General Terms of Use also includes language about access to and use of your data and messaging information. The fact is most smartphone applications probably include language such as this, so just be aware.

Creating your own colorful Microsoft Tag takes some study, but the instructions are clear. You can even create decorative custom tags that include your company logo or other artwork. You also get the ability to track results and see how many people scan your tag (and from what location) to help refine your advertising and message. See http://tag.microsoft.com/create-your-own-tag.aspx for more details. The basic features of the Microsoft Tag creating service are free. For simple and free black-and-white tags, try Kaywa QR-Code Generator (http://qrcode.kaywa.com/).

Next time you notice a QR code, go ahead and download a reader app and give it a scan. You may soon find yourself getting good ideas about creating and using codes of your own.•

Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD, and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.

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