QR Codes: A Creaky Bridge Between Physical & Digital Worlds
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QR Codes: A Creaky Bridge Between Physical & Digital Worlds

QR (quick response) codes are popping up all over the place. From wine labels and movie trailers, to printed magazines and direct mail, you're now likely to come across a QR code wherever you see a printed advertisement or message.

By Chuck Lenatti

Residents in New York City's SOHO District are characteristically nonchalant about the edgy advertising looming overhead: The soft-core "eye candy" of seductively-clad models languorously posed on a 70-foot-wide wallscape.

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  • In July of last year, however, many billboards in New York and Los Angeles stood out because they did not have images of models or anything familiar on them for that matter. This time, there was only a large square glyph with a red label invoking, "Get it uncensored." People who successfully scanned the 35-square-foot image with their smart phone cameras were treated to a 30-second video montage of Calvin Klein models cavorting in skinny jeans and not much else.

    QR Codes in Action
    About a month earlier in Rochester, New York, Michael Philipson of the Philipson Group was scrambling to put up some unique signage at the Rochester Jazz Festival. Concert-goers who scanned the symbol on the four-by-eight-foot vinyl posters could download a portable schedule of the music onto their smart phones. "It would take them to the entire jazz festival in the palm of their hand," said Philipson.

    Shoppers at the Port Townsend Food Co-op in Washington, meanwhile, encountered a similar symbol on signage in the bakery department. When they took a picture of Jack Olmsted's symbol with their smart phones, shoppers were able to view a video of Dave's Killer Bread talking about his gluten-free bread. The next day it might be a coupon for $1 off a loaf, and another day it could be a video showing how to make a Killer sandwich - all with the same symbol.

    In all of these examples, the symbols were QR (quick response) codes, and they're popping up all over the place. From wine labels and movie trailers, to NASCAR and Ralph Lauren, you're now likely to come across a QR code wherever you see a printed advertisement or message.

    QR codes are square, two-dimensional symbols that hold a dense pattern of data with built-in error correction. Descended from 1-D barcodes like those used during supermarket checkouts, 2-D barcodes store information along the height as well as the length of the symbol. 2-D codes can be scanned using a "smart" camera phone with an Internet connection. Scanning the code with a smart phone eliminates the need to type in a lengthy URL. Once activated, QR codes become a Web link that can take the user to a video or song, a coupon for a free appetizer, a Web page, text, a PURL and more.

    A Bit of QR History
    QR codes were developed in the mid-1990s by Toyota subsidiary Denso-Wave for tracking auto parts. When Denso chose not to enforce its patent, QR codes became a de facto standard. Embraced by telecom giant NTT Docomo and abetted by Docomo's robust mobile data network, QR codes have flourished in Japan's digital culture. QR codes are covered under an International Organization for Standardization standard (ISO/IEC 18004) and most QR code readers can scan most QR codes. Google, for instance, uses QR codes in its Google Places stickers on restaurant storefronts. Another open-source 2-D barcode that was released into the public domain by RVSI Acuity CiMatrix is called Data Matrix. These codes are rectangles, usually square, and are covered under ISO/IEC 16022:2006.

    The heady whiff of a potential mobile marketing bonanza has triggered a barcode stampede. Microsoft Tags and JagTags are just a couple of the proprietary codes lately adorning various forms of print advertising. These codes only can be read by manufacturers' scanning software and none of them are covered under international standards.

    Some providers bristle at the thought of proprietary 2-D barcodes. "Proprietary never fails to be a problem in satisfying the needs of everybody," said Val DiGiacinto of the Ace Group in New York, which created the Calvin Klein QR code campaign. "I hate the idea of a funnel being held by anybody."

    Many publishers have embraced proprietary codes, however, including amNewYork, the San Diego Union Tribune and Conde Nast, which use MS Tags. "MS Tags are simple to set up and create, are free and provide Web site information," said Brandy Luscalzo-Stemen, emerging media product manager at The San Diego Union-Tribune.

    Realistically, proprietary and open-source codes will probably co-exist, which means that consumers will need more than one scanner application on their phones.

    What's in it For Me?
    If 2-D barcodes are to evolve from an interesting novelty to a useful part of everyday American life, scanning the codes will have to get a lot easier and the user experience will have to be more engaging and worthwhile. According to Eric Beaulieu, vice president of Transcontinental Printing Premedia, more often than not, 2-D barcodes have been experimentally applied in the marketing cycle and have resulted in little to no benefit for the consumer. "Ok, you had me click on your QR code and it got me to your ad, but what's in it for me?"

    By definition, 2-D barcodes are driven by consumers opting in, so if the consumer isn't entertained, educated or rewarded, the entire exercise is pointless.

    "One of the golden rules is to make sure you're offering something that's exclusive or is worth getting to," said Philip Warbasse of Warbasse Group, which has managed QR campaigns for HBO and Sony Pictures.

    "You have your user's attention and their energy is being invested in getting to what it is you have to offer, so make sure that it's good and valuable. All too often it's not, and that's really unfortunate."

    Today, scanning a 2-D barcode is often frustrating. Would-be scanners must navigate a blizzard of options in open-source and proprietary readers and codes. Also, not all scanners perform equally on all smart phone cameras, and the sensitivity of the cameras themselves is maddeningly inconsistent. A code might scan on one handset but not another, for no apparent reason.

    "The reader is important on the phones," said John Gagliardi of Ace Group. "For the BlackBerry Messenger, there's nothing as good as the reader that comes pre-installed. Some of the others deliver less than a 60 percent performance level, if that."

    Just scanning a QR code to transfer business card information (known as a vCard) can be problematic. "It's a great application for the QR code so you don't have to type it in, but the QR code didn't work with every phone to fill in the contacts," said Chris Gatzke of Ripon Printers. "We tested it with a BlackBerry and couldn't get it to work, so we used a different smart phone and it worked beautifully. We ended up just throwing in a quick link to the customer's Web site, which worked on all phones."

    To make sure consumers could scan the QR codes in its campaigns for Calvin Klein, TimeOut NewYork, the National Basketball Association and MasterCard - to name a few - the Ace Group in New York "interrogates" the user's phone when she scans a code and suggests which scanner would be best for that user's handset. QR code marketing companies such as Warbasse Design, Tappinn and Mobilebarcodes.com also offer a list of which readers perform best on specific phones.

    Code-reading software confusion will be resolved somewhat when the newer Android and BlackBerry smartphones arrive with pre-installed QR code scanners in 2011 (Apple is still holding out), but consumers who want to scan proprietary codes like Microsoft Tag or AT&T Mobile Barcode will still have to download special scanning software.

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    The Wild West
    A consumer can have a poor experience, even if they use the right software, if the code isn't reproduced properly to begin with. Ad hoc implementations of both proprietary and open-source codes are happening so quickly that they are outpacing standards.

    "2-D barcodes have taken everything by storm because unlike other traditional popular barcodes, it's the Wild West out there," said Andy Verb, owner of Barcode Graphics Inc.

    According to Verb, there are no barriers to entry. "You can create a garbage program for a couple thousand dollars and call one's self a 2-D barcode company, and a lot of these companies are offering it for free," he says. "Bad barcodes not only hurt the brand that deploys them but 2-D barcodes in general, since consumers won't be as receptive to scanning other barcodes if they have a bad experience."

    The consequences that penalize creators of bad 1-D barcodes don't exist in the 2-D barcode world, Verb says. "In the barcodes we deal with in our testing lab, if a UPC code can't scan at a store, typically the manufacturer is going to get charged. If a coupon can't be scanned, they are charged a hard-to-handle fee. When you're dealing with QR codes and consumer-enabled reading, there's no penalties, but there's bad user experience."

    Problems can begin with the quality of the submitted 2-D barcode file. "Even the biggest players as organizations, whether it's Google, ScanLife or bit.ly, are providing low-res barcode files," Verb said. Barcode graphics works with vector images as opposed to bitmapped or other images. "You want vector-based files that can be expanded or optimized to whatever the output resolution is going to be." Verb recommends that printers specify in their contract that they're not liable for scanning provided artwork that doesn't meet their quality standards.

    According to Verb, large-format can also create quality control issues. "Once you get into the big poster sizes, there are no ANSI or ISO standards for the print quality of something that big," he says. "You have to understand that limitation with the technology right now and make sure that you protect yourself so you're not liable for any problems. The only way to verify or validate 2-D barcodes on large-format applications is by utilizing a bunch of sample readers and sample applications."

    Verb distinguishes between validation and verification in controlling the quality of barcode reproduction. Verification is how well the barcode was printed so that it can do what it's supposed to do. Validation is whether it's carrying the right data. "The printer can check validation to prove that the barcode that was scanned as well as check its destination URL," he said. "Whether it reads or not in the marketplace, at least you know it's going to the right place."

    Verification is a different story and might require an outside service like Bar Code Graphics to test the quality of the 2-D barcode. Bar Code Graphics charges around $35-50 for a barcode test.

    "In the scope of a project, that's nothing," said Verb. "We do a lot of coupons because they're putting way too much money on a promotion to be money-foolish. The flatbed devices used to verify a 2-D barcode cost around $10,000. The equipment is out there, but how to interpret it is a different story. In a lack of any true standards for this type of consumer reading, you have to pull a lot of data."

    Knowing the difference between open-source and proprietary symbols can help printers indemnify themselves against liability if something goes wrong with the code. According to Verb, you might limit your quality control to open-source barcodes. Most printers have good QC types of processes, and if they're not using an open-source barcode, it's at their own risk. The quality control is limited by utilizing proprietary symbols.

    Some companies have begun customizing their codes with branded logos and this can lead to problems in reproducing a scan-able symbol. According to verb, what they're counting on is that this type of code has error correction. You can literally have part of that code destroyed, but no one's measuring whether it's scanning or how long it takes to scan.

    Verb offers the following tips:

    • Start with good content.
    • Deal with the right barcode symbol.
    • Deal with a size that's applicable to the target audience and material.
    • Have some form of verification if possible, either a service like Bar Code Graphics or invest in high-end equipment to verify 2-D barcodes.
    Printing Partner
    By participating in the entire 2-D barcode process, printers can help their clients anticipate embarrassing and costly disasters, which have been all too frequent in early 2-D barcode campaigns.

    "What always surprises me is that major companies, brands and their agencies don't seem to be getting it right by paying attention and learning the basics," said Roger Marquis, who writes a 2-D Barcode Strategy blog.

    According to Eric Beaulieu of Transcontinental, printers should become more sophisticated in understanding the process rather than the code itself. "Processes are something that printers are very good at, so it's a good opportunity for them to increase their value in the chain by asking the question of why rather than how," he says.

    Being perceived as technology leaders could place printers in a more favorable light when negotiating for business. "Agencies need to know that we get it and that we're the experienced technical partner to work with to execute the campaign," said Sudhir Ravi of Think Variable Print. "QR codes are virtually free. The only cost is learning how to deploy them."

    Companies like Ace Group and Tappinn, which have printing pedigrees; and Warbasse Design, which works with major media clients like HBO and Sony Pictures, are already managing QR campaigns for corporate clients.

    "Printers can either shine brightly or they can go dim if they don't implement properly, because it's ultimately all about how the brand is represented," said Verb. "No one cares about the printer; we're behind the scenes, but if they can't read a promotion, they're just wasting time," he said.

    According to Verb, this is the perfect opportunity for the SGIA community to get ahead of the curve and to differentiate themselves. "If one of their clients has a bad experience, has a non-activated code or just did something wrong, they're going to lose the business, and it's too hard to get that client back," he says.

    The Next Move
    Until smart phones with pre-installed scanning software reach a critical mass in the US, 2-D barcodes can be seen as a relatively inexpensive adjunct to a printer's offerings.

    "About 17 percent of my market has smart phones, and about half of those have the ability to read a 2-D barcode," said Ravi. "Replacing the existing PURL technology would be foolish. On my business card I have a QR code and around it I have a text code. Almost 100 percent of phones can text, while six percent can read a 2-D barcode. Of those, around one percent know how to use a QR code."

    With mobile advertising taking off, however, and smart phones set to overtake feature phones in 2011, it's not too early for printers to start learning about and experimenting with 2-D barcodes.

    Chuck Lenatti has been a technology and business journalist for more than 25 years and believes that despite the challenges, we are on the dawn of a new and exciting era for journalism and publishing. He's also an avid beer drinker and also writes about pairing beer and food. Chuck lives in Pacifica, California, with his wife, daughter and cat.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, March/April 2011 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2011 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

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