What Is QR Coding?

I first learned about QR coding a few years ago, and then I didn't hear a peep about them again until recently. Now, finally, they appear to be making a surge. I sat down with Mack Schwab of Louisville-based Block5 to get his take on the past, present and future of QR coding.

PAULA: Hey, Mack. On a very basic level, what is QR coding?

MACK: A QR Code is a two-dimensional bar code created in 1994 by Denso-Wave, a Japanese automotive components manufacturer. The term "QR" stands for "Quick Response," because they were designed to be decoded at a high speed. At the application layer, there is some variation among methods of implementation. NTT docomo has established de facto standards for the encoding of URLs, contact information, and several other data types. The open-source "zxing" project maintains a list of QR Code data types.

PAULA: Um...wow...you lost me towards the end there. Why don't you try walking us through how it works?

MACK: The first step in using QR codes is downloading a quality QR code reader for your mobile device. If you use an iPhone, we recommend our QR app but there are many free QR applications available. Chances are, if your mobile phone has a camera, you can get a QR reader. The second step is to start scanning QR codes! You just hold your phone level in front of a code, and wait for your mobile device to scan the code. It is that easy and fun.

PAULA: It is kind of fun. When I first tried it, I think I was just amazed that it actually worked. You mentioned having to download a QR app and that there were several to choose from. Are some better than others? And, how much do they cost?

MACK: We launched our QR app two years ago, and it has been very exciting to watch its popularity grow. We are now installed on well over 100,000 iPhones, and the numbers keep growing month after month. But, there are many options and most are free. You'll want to make sure the QR app you download has an auto-scan feature and automatically opens the web browser. We suggest you start with the free apps. The most I would pay for a QR reader is $2.00. And if you do pay, make sure you will receive free updates. The exciting news is most of the new mobile devices are coming equipped with QR readers factory installed.

PAULA: You mentioned that QR codes were invented in 1994. Can you give me a little more information on the history of QR codes?

MACK: QR codes are very common in Japan. Japan is a global leader in mobile technology, and they have "lightning fast" mobile connectivity, so QR codes were easily adopted. Although initially used for tracking parts in vehicle manufacturing, QR codes are now used in both commercial tracking applications and more convenience-oriented applications aimed at mobile phone users.

PAULA: Can you give me some specific examples of how the codes are being used in Japan?

MACK: One of the more unusual uses I have seen is on headstones. You can scan the headstone, and your mobile device will display information about the dearly departed. You will also see QR codes on almost everything from drinking cups to billboards.

PAULA: Hmmm. I don't see QR coded headstones sweeping the nation anytime soon. What else has been holding up widespread adoption here in the states?

MACK: Again, Asia has a fast network and on average the mobile devices there are more advanced than the mobile devices here in the United States. So, the hold up has really been two-fold: One, the U.S. wireless infrastructure and, two, the lag in mobile technology. It has only been fairly recently that the U.S. market has started to grow. The nationwide expansion of U.S. 3G networks and the advances in mobile device technology have allowed rapid expansion of QR technology. And, the iPhone has truly accelerated the U.S. mobile market. The race is on.

PAULA: QR codes were all over SXSW this year, and I'm finally starting to spot them around town. How are they currently being used here in the states and by whom?

MACK: Watch out, because here come the QR codes! Last week Facebook announced they are going to add QR codes for the use of Facebook users. We are using QR codes at Art Museums like 21C, which was recently featured in a New York Times article about the codes. We are also using QR codes at the Louisville Zoo. Soon Zoo goers will be able to walk up to the polar bear exhibit, scan the code and retrieve information about the polar bears. Even National Safe Place is experimenting with QR coding that can immediately direct teens in crisis to a safe location. We believe the developers in the U.S. are going to explore a variety of uses for QR codes. Google has also backed QR technology and sent the top Google searched websites QR stickers for their use. The music industry is also using QR codes. You can hit this QR code (pictured below) and download songs from famed dance producer Grum.


PAULA: So, tell me about the potential. What can these babies really do?

MACK: The potential is the most exciting part. As we partner with companies throughout the U.S., we are always impressed with the creative uses of QR technology. One of our clients is going to put QR codes on hotel keys and also use QR codes for trade shows. We hope soon that the airline industry will adopt QR codes for paperless tickets. The next year is going to be the most exciting to date in the world of QR coding.

PAULA: It seems like it, but a recent Fast Company article cited some users describing QR codes as "clumsy". That hasn't been my experience at all. In fact, I've been impressed by how smooth the experience is. Is it just the "new and different" factor that make them seem "clumsy" or does the technology have a way to go before it is ready for primetime?

MACK: Those assessments are simply outdated. We have moved light-years ahead in just the last three months. Our new QR app is so fast! Thank you, 3G! Now scanning is just fun to do. Once America catches on to QR codes, it is going to explode and QR readers are only going to get better with 4G.

PAULA: Of course, there are folks out there that will ask about the ROI. Humor them, please.

MACK: The model is not new to online technology. We like to call it the "Google Model," make it free to the users and build corporate value though data collection and information sharing. Consumers want all of the facts, and they want them instantly. The company that does the most to educate the consumer as to the value of that company's goods or services will be the company that sells. There is also promotional value. Just imagine: It is a warm and sunny day. Your door bell rings and you walk briskly to answer the door. The postman hands you a box. You race back to the kitchen and rip open your package. You are delighted to find a great new pair of Vans shoes. You look at your invoice and you spy a QR code. Whipping out your iPhone, you scan the QR code. Then, you start jumping around the kitchen with delight because you just won a new "Hippie Stick" skateboard.

PAULA: I have no idea what a "hippie stick" is, but it sounds like something I would like. So, in closing, what is your hope, vision, or prediction for the future of QR coding?

MACK: We are optimistic that QR codes are going to be huge, and we are investing heavily in building backend technology to make the QR experience even better for everyone. Soon QR codes will be common in most U.S. advertising and the consumer will come to expect QR codes for additional information on almost everything.