9 minutes reading time (1785 words)

Quiet realities

Terence Eden. Photo by courtesy of Terence Eden

Systems have linked data with physical objects for decades. We are all used to the bar code, and the occasional attempt to halt the tide of automating retail systems through them. To some, they represent more than just a series of black and white lines.

QR codes, a recent innovation in this area, provides more opportunities than bar codes. They are free, in that it is possible for anyone to generate a QR code based on information such as a URL, email address, or contact details. They can also be customised in their display – to a point. There will always be a certain blockiness to them, but can contain limited features such as colour.

Terence Eden is an energetic, infectious advocate of QR codes. Eden is expecting a flourishing scene to be built up around them – their use, their proliferation and propagation, and an understanding of their potential in the eye of the consumer. Essentially, to Eden, QR codes are the lever that is so needed by both publishers and consumers, unlocking information at an environmental point of access which is comfortable with the consumer. They will no longer need to memorise or write down URLs, or type them into mobile devices with small keyboards. Further, and importantly from the perspective of access, QR does not require an aggregator, as is required with a competing technology like Microsoft Tag.

However, this is not to say that QR codes are easily understood by publishers and agencies. Eden's work in QR technology has given him a level of knowledge and opinion in the matter that is both passionate and logical. It seems easy to consider how and where QR codes should be used, but we are still in the early days of their use, so experiments will take place and mistakes will be made.

One of the problems of the QR experience to date is, for Eden, actually one of the easiest to overcome. Many QR codes, designed to be scanned by consumer mobiles, point people towards a full website without considering that someone is on a mobile phone, without plugins such as Flash. He gives the example of an ad in the Evening Standard for a tour operator, whose QR code initially took the reader to a mobile-formatted webpage, only for it to start to download a 10mb PDF. This is less of a technological issue, than one of assuming a single audience: if more consumers are adopting QR code reader technologies in their phone (either with new devices or retrospectively), then there will be a wider variety of situations. Not everyone will have an iOS or Android smartphone, and not everyone will be on wi-fi. The offered code has to be flexible to operate within a wide variety of mobile environments. This sounds pretty obvious and logical, but is still missed when campaigns are in development.

Eden sees access as a problem which has already been solved. Citing the downloading of an app as being key to the difficulty of QR code use is roundly ignored. "These issues are already solved. If people don't want to download an app for their phone, then look at Angry Birds." Of course, it would be easier to offer phones with QR code reading functionality pre-installed, but Eden doesn't see this as being a major issue. Large amounts people have already downloaded QR code software into their phones, as free reader software has become increasingly available across a wider variety of app stores.

There is also the issue of how to display the code. Eden cites many examples of code failures, with a recent example in Metro being a code which was too small to scan for most readers. Physically, this represented a physical challenge which was clearly not thought through when the creative direction of the ad was being developed; even for those readers that could understand the code at that scale, there was a risk in the small code being illegible due to the possibilities of ink smudging during the printing process.

Of course, it's simple to make technical tweaks after the ad's publication has gone to the printer. However, even with the possibility of offering a great mobile experience, publishers often forget to join the dots between a great brand experience in the home, and an easy one for mobiles. An example given by Eden is of Sony's campaign for Easy A. After successfully scanning the QR code, the consumer's mobile device is taken to an ad on YouTube. This is perfectly fine; YouTube renders perfectly onto most phones. However, Sony had prevented the ad from playing on mobile devices, completely destroying the potential of a good, if not useful, experience. "The person that approved the ad needs to be taken out and shot. "

While the technical challenges are easy to fix, the physical challenges are equally deflected. QR codes offered in hard-to-reach places, such as a reception-free underground train, should be able to store the target URL in the device's web history. QR codes behind glass are susceptible to glare from the sun. Codes offered towards the bottom of a poster become hard to scan (try kneeling down to scan a code on a large poster at a train station without feeling at least a little foolish). It is possible, however, to mount them on curved surfaces such as lamp posts, and for them to work successfully. There will clearly be considerable experimentation in coming years in terms of the physical offering of QR codes, with increasingly original – if not bizarre ways – of offering them.

Marketers' discovery of the depth of intelligence that can be built into a QR code, perhaps suggests why they are becoming so popular, so quickly. "We've had a lot of bullshit from advertising people that have said that if you place an ad in a newspaper, it will be seen by 10 million people. But, how many will contact the advertiser and tell you where they saw the ad? With QR codes, we know how many people scanned it, on what day, on what phone, and what they went on to do. They're powerful - disruptively so." The problem arises with the classic dilemma as to what to do with the response data; if takeup is poor, is it the fault of the execution, or a lack of takeup of QR code technology?



While QR codes offer opportunities in innovation and access for advertisers, they also offer opportunities to those that do not like the brand. This concept, QR hijacking, has started to flourish in Japan.

QR hijacking is where opponents of the brand stick new QR codes over the original code, taking the consumer somewhere else, such as an "anti" site. However, again, Eden sees this as nothing new, and is effectively a more sophisticated solution that drawing a speech bubble on a poster ad model, ordering consumers to boycott the product. The difference with QR hijacking is that, for the brand owner, it is traceable; you will know where the hijacked code is sending the consumer, and may wish to open up a dialogue with the owner of the petitioning site. It is likely that there will be some fear around QR hijacking, meaning that PR agencies need to be in a reassuring position for their clients, rather than be asked – belatedly - about the dangers that they face.

The potential for hijackers remains the same as with commercial marketers. They still need to fight for attention, and to think through the consumer experience "For protest, it's a great way to get a message out, but hijackers have to treat the experience in the same way as the advertiser. If I scan the anti QR code and it takes me to a Flash movie or full-screen website, then it won't work."

QR curiosity

One of Eden's main projects is QRpedia. With Derby Museum as a client, QRpedia provides a way to scan QR codes attached to physical artefacts, and for the consumer's device to be taken to relevant data from Wikipedia. There has to be some subtlety in the way in which the QR code is presented alongside the object, as we cannot get away from the reality that it's a blocky graphic.



Terence Eden talks about QRpedia at GLAMwiki, Derby Museum


"It is the perfect way to get access to massive amounts of cultural information. At the British Museum, the Rosetta Stone has three paragraphs of text next to it, just in English. This is useless for many visitors. In Derby, a painting by Joseph Wright was recently taken away for cleaning. Now, the Museum staff have put a QR code in its place with an image of the painting, and information of its history." For some museums, works will be too delicate to display at all, at least for prolonged periods; the permanence of a QR code allows for a rich experience based on works which may not be accessible, allowing – to some degree – a level of comfort to the visitor if they cannot experience the work that they set out to view. Eden is clear, however, that offering a QR code in itself is insufficient; there has to be some additional, human-readable information around it, even if it is just a single sentence and a URL.

The potential for codes in the physical realm is significant. Recent work for Eden has included a collaboration with a London-based author, offering codes around the city based on the author's work. The reader scans each code as they walk around the city in a given sequence, and is given a short story which is based on the area that they are standing in. This level of immersion and experience is not difficult to achieve, but Eden's feeling is that nothing has really been available until now to unlock these deep, environmental connections between people, place, and content.

Eden's infectious enthusiasm for QR codes provides a robust defence for a technology that has had its opponents. The proliferation of codes in morning newspapers, on lamp posts, and on poster ads will not cease. What will cease is the confusion in what to do with a QR code as part of an integrated campaign, and the richness of the experience – irrespective of the device – will come first. This is less to do with QR codes, and more to do with putting the consumer at the heart of the experience, something which should, by now, be taken as a given.


au-al-0168-1002-qrTerence Eden is a London-based mobile consultant, and is @edent on Twitter. He will be talking about QR codes at OpenTech on 21 May 2011.

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