QR Codes... Past, Present and Future
QR Codes, or Quick Response Codes, originated in Japan to help car manufacturer Toyota keep track of parts around the factory but have since become widespread throughout the Middle East, America and Europe. Anyone who follows technology news cannot have avoided headlines about the rapid growth of QR Code use in advertising and shopping; although a recent news story about British bookmakers BetFair using the barcodes on volleyball player’s bikinis may have shown it could go too far. The need for such barcodes originally rose from the difficulties encountered trying to encode increasingly more information into 1D Barcodes which then became large and easily damaged. Unlike the traditional 1D Barcodes which are only read in one direction the new wave of 2D Barcodes contain data in both horizontal and vertical directions. This huge increase in the amount of information which can be held in the same amount of space means QR Codes can include far greater redundancy; allowing a greater scope for poor quality reading or printing.
The greater robust nature of QR Codes is not to be underestimated in its value. In my youth I worked as a shelf stacker in a supermarket as a weekend job and it was not uncommon for 1D barcodes to be become damaged beyond use. This was a regular headache for the managers of the store who constantly had to sort problems at the checkout. Furthermore the barcodes were only able to contain the product line, not any information regarding ‘sell by date.’ This could be about to change and would end the possibility of getting home only to realise you purchased something a few days past its best; the till would inform the cashier that the product should not be for sale.
However if QR Codes are more efficient than 1D barcodes what is there advantage over the many other 2D barcodes? The main rival to QR Codes is the Data Matrix since the two forms both hold substantially more characters than other forms of barcode. QR Codes though actually hold a great deal more information than a Data Matrix; 4,296 characters to Data Matrix’s 2,335. This allows for a larger level of redundancy in the barcode and thus produces a more resilient end result. Another explanation for the rapid growth in QR Code, ahead of the Data Matrix, is the fact as a product of Japan it was designed with the capability to contain Kanji (Japanese characters) and has thus enjoyed widespread use in the technology hungry country. This does not however render Data Matrix as useless; it does have greater security and thus suits a more sensitive job. However the main benefit of the QR Code is its now iconic status; everyone knows what to do with them. In June of 2011 alone 14 million Americans scanned a QR Code. Whether for public use or within an organisation the advantage of an easily and widely identifiable barcode is obvious.
QR Codes are clearly of value within an organisation but the presence of this widely known barcode in media is no guarantee of its use. Although the barcode itself may be able to hold a large amount of data and be easily read by barcode reading software you have to ensure that the target audience are willing to scan the barcode. Many QR Codes are now presented to the public with the expectation that they will obediently scan them and study a mediocre promotional website; this is simply not the case. To ensure that a QR Code is not dismissed as novelty advertising it is important the user is offered something in return. The best example of this I found in my local pub (strictly on market research business… of course) with the brewery Adnams putting a QR Code on the back of a beer mat offering a free pub quiz application. They had placed their advert in a place where people are sat around for a prolonged period, often with their phones out, and often very receptive to such innovations. Compare this to adverts you see in the streets or at bus stops, how many people are likely to stop walking, get out their phone and attempt to read a barcode for some product which is promising them little?
Among the many stories of QR use this summer was of entire shops being replaced with the barcodes. Although personally I think that the idea of entire supermarkets full of food being replaced by rows of QR Codes, which has been tried in South Korea, is possibly a little too far it is clear that QR Codes can give amazing results. The ability to store enough information in a barcode to not require a link to a database is very useful since a company can bridge the gap between the physical and virtual advertising sphere. This was demonstrated perfectly in Copenhagen where a campaign to raise awareness for safe sex broke all expectations. Through distributing condoms with QR Codes on the packaging, to a young audience who mainly possessed smart phones, they were able to confidentially collect data which ultimately helped reach the campaign’s goal.
Therefore it is no surprise that QR Codes have expanded so rapidly in recent years. Their size efficiency, ease of reading and recognisable format has made them an obvious choice for barcode format. The large amount of data which can be held has revolutionised the way in which a barcode can be used; to no longer require a direct link with a database in order to make sense of the content held diversifies the applications exponentially. The only danger is complacency, when using a QR Code for promotional purposes it must be realised that presenting your consumer with the barcode will not be any guarantee that it will be used. As with anything in life you must promise the user something in return, whether that be entertaining content or promotional offers.