qr codes, quick response codes
AP Photo/Koji Sasahara
A man passes by an advertisement with
designs of
QR codes in Tokyo in 2007.

2D Bar Codes a Hit With Techies and Advertisers—Will They Catch On?

July 29, 2009 05:00 PM
by Haley A. Lovett
QR codes are used in mobile-savvy regions of the world for advertising, ticketing and even nutrition information on food; how will the codes be received in the U.S.?

What Are QR Codes?

Quick Response Codes (QR codes for short) are two-dimensional bar codes that can be “scanned” by mobile picture-taking devices (such as BlackBerrys or iPhones). Mobile users simply need a picture-taking phone and software that enables the phone to interpret the code. They are much like bar codes in a supermarket, except that QR codes can store more information, such as an advertising message or a complicated URL address.

QR codes were invented in 1994 by a Japanese company and have now grown in popularity in all parts of Asia, according to Shawn Smith of New Media Bytes.

Garrick Schmitt of Advertising Age points out that the QR codes are sometimes called “URL killers” because it saves mobile users from typing in a Web address. Instead they simply snap an image of a QR code and their mobile phone can take them to a Web site.

QR Codes Coming to the U.S.

The U.S. is traditionally behind the Asian and European markets as far as mobile technology adaptation, and this is also true with the QR codes. As Helen Coster recently wrote in a Forbes article, just over 10 percent of the U.S. cell phone market is using Web-ready phones. Coster explains that many companies in the U.S. are still working on creating mobile sites for their brands, a necessary step before launching any QR campaign.

But even though the technology in the U.S. relies upon those early adapters who have both a Web-ready phone and who have downloaded QR code-reading software, the QR codes have been showing up in the U.S. market for a couple years. Susan Stellin of The New York Times wrote in 2008 about how Continental Airlines was experimenting with ticketless travel using QR codes in 2008—customers would display the QR code on the screen of their mobile device, and it would be scanned by a ticket agent at the gate. This move would take the widely popular online check-in one step further.

Dana Oshiro of Mashable wrote about some unique ways that QR codes have been used for marketing; QR code temporary tattoos, QR codes on restaurants for reviews, and for guerilla marketing tactics by bands and other brands. Some recent campaigns are using the QR codes, such as that for Green Day’s new album, and for the fall release of Tim Burton’s film “9,” Schmitt points out.

Users are now able to generate their own QR codes for Web links through YouTube, the Firefox Web browser, and a few other Web sites that serve only to generate the codes.

Background: First Bar Code and the CueCat

The first UPC bar code was scanned in 1974 in Ohio, and that technology was somewhat slow to take off (in 1976 BusinessWeek reported that the technology was going to fail). Now UPC scanners are found in nearly every store, large or small, as an easy way to track inventory. Since it’s inception, the UPC code has been used for many purposes, including concert ticketing and endangered species tracking.

In the early 2000’s, Digital Convergence Information developed the CueCat, a device that would scan UPC, EAN, ISBN and :CRQ codes, and link the user to that product or book’s Web site. The codes also appeared in magazine ads to take readers directly to a product or information page online. The initial scanners for the CueCat technology looked like little cats, and were designed to plug in to your computer via USB ports, but later on portable devices for scanning the codes appeared. The CueCat idea failed to gain wide popularity, and though the technology still exists, it is no longer being developed or supported.

The QR codes may succeed where the CueCat failed in that the scanning device is something that many potential users already have, their cell phones, rather than an additional device they would need to buy.

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