Digital and Physical World Ties: QR Codes and More

Science Fiction is finally starting to become real, even if it’s not personal flying cars for everyone. Augmented reality, or the idea that we can actively connect the digital and physical world, is happening right now. At our Lunch & Learn on September 27, we spent some time with a great group of people (thanks for coming!) imagining different directions for these connections and talking about what’s happening right now.

We began by setting aside the particular technologies of today and thought more broadly about the possible connections and interactions. This particular exercise can be done anywhere, and is great fun. Get some post-it notes and wander around a physical space attaching notes to anything that you would like to interact with, sort of like a real world version of VH1 Pop Up video show. It can be helpful to think about what you would like to say to the thing, what you would like to know about the thing, and any two-way communication.

During our exploration activity, we came up with a variety of different kinds information and interactions:

  • information about the thing (needed parts, manufacturer, origins of parts, where to purchase another, operating instructions)
  • reviews and interpretations (what do you think about this piece of art?), any online community around the thing or idea (how do you use this thing? can we share?)
  • whether the thing needed attention (plant needs water/light, printer needs ink, bike chain needs grease, light needs new battery/bulb)
  • history of the usage of the thing (info on past text on whiteboard, past owners of the object)

Brief overview of some current augmented reality technologies

While augmented reality is here in a variety of forms, there is going to be lots of change in the technology as well as how people actually use the technology, so don’t get too attached to any particular form of technology discussed below.

The classic way to say “I am here” is with a nice graffiti tag, as humans have been doing in one form or another for millennia. Now, however, we can take this information into the digital realm, whether located on a webpage or encoded on the object.

More recently, we have been busily identifying our location through our phones. Depending on what service you are using, you can then find out about useful things nearby (food, entertainment, friends).  Location-based services are starting be a normal part of smart phone usage, with Pew Internet reporting that of the 28% of Americans are using location-based services of some kind, with directions or recommendations based on their location one of the most common actions.  Fewer folks are sharing their location (checking in) via Foursquare, Gowalla, Facebook, Twitter, and various other services, but that is also a popular extension of your physical self into the digital realm.

We are also increasingly able to use digital maps to identify where we are (or would like to be) and find out information about that physical location (This topic is worthy of a full Lunch & Learn, blog post, and more, but check out this article about a Dutch start-up and map layers and another project to identify what was there). These map layers are being constructions by individuals as a community exercise as well as a more commercial enterprise.

There are lots of tools available to provide more information about a thing that what can be written on it. We are all familiar with bar codes on the side of our cereal boxes and other products. RFID tags are appearing in library books and inserted into clothing to prevent shoplifting, as well as in our USA passports.

Near Field Communication (NFC) is a great newer technology to allow secure (hopefully) two-way communication between two devices.  This is what is underlying the Google Wallet payments excitement that has been in the news the last few weeks.

QR Codes

QR Codes came, like so many interesting tracking codes/tags/devices, from Japan. They have been around for decades, but have only taken off in popular US culture more recently. You can identify a QR code by the nice boxes in three of the four corners.

They are easy to create, and can include a fair amount of information. They are easy to duplicate and you can send them via email, webpage, and even television. Their square footprint can make them an interesting visual accent to a layout, and they can fit easier on many items than a long string of text. One service, QR Stuff will generate them for you for free, and then would like to put them on stuff to sell to you.

The simpler the QR Code visually, the less information included. These simpler codes are also less likely to get corrupted from part of the code missing.

While you can conceivably could put all sorts of interesting things in the QR code, the phone scanner applications (programs) are currently all over the place in how they interpret the code.  If you are going to encode some information today, you are  safest with either plain text or a website URL.


For a QR code to actually be used, someone needs to be interested enough to have a device (typically their phone) that has a good enough camera to scan a code, have added a QR Code scanner program to their phone, and actually pulls out the phone to scan the code. This may get easier as more phones have image stabilizers and flashes built in, scanner programs come bundled the phone, and information of value is included in the codes. But for now, not that many people are scanning them, and they are mostly younger, male, and economically well-off.

QR codes are also in some danger of being the hot thing of fall 2011, and may look dated in the future if they are leapfrogged by another technology — so don’t get your forehead tattoo quite yet.

One possible technology is pure text scanning — if your item already has the website written on it, and someone can easily scan the website URL, why would they scan a QR code that is just going to take them to the same website?

The security concerns with QR codes are considerable. Anything could be in that code, and you can’t inspect it with your naked eye. Furthermore, most free QR code readers automatically open web urls, potentially taking a visitor to a hostile website which could do very bad things with/to their phone. Most free QR scanners do not currently appear to have any significant security protection. Our initial review of free and low cost QR code scanners/reader programs (or applications, as they like to call themselves) for iPhones and Android phones did not immediately locate any programs that were committed to security and in fact indicated that the programs themselves are requiring access to all sorts of information and functionality on your phone. If you have a scanner program that is deeply committed to privacy and security, please let us know in the comments.

Implementing QR Codes

Reasons to create them right now:

  • If your customers, employees, and/or community of people interact with physical things/places, adding a QR code that takes them to additional information about those things or sending them to an online location to discuss the thing could be really helpful
  • A high percentage of your people are younger, well-off men
  • If you have coupons that can be redeemed online
  • You’re excited to use them
That being said, there can be lots of interesting ways that you might want to try them out (directions on a flyer or invitation, additional ingredient or health information about food, scavenger hunt, etc.).
Things to consider if you do create them:
  • You may want do some education around QR codes for your customers. They are becoming common enough visually that they may appreciate the chance to learn more about these things
  • If you are directing them to a website, be sure to set up some tracking specifically for those visitors so you know whether you’re getting traction with your codes
All of this is going to keep changing and evolving, so we look forward to doing more Lunch & Learns (come join us!) on this topic in the future and of course updating you via the web.

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