Tuesday, March 08, 2011

QR Codes Tried Quite Recently

On the diffusion of innovations curve, I admit I'm not the quickest adopter. Tech has to prove its value to me in a unique (and affordable) way before I'll dive in. And the positives have to outweigh the negatives. The latter point was why I waited so long to get a mobile phone - the downside of my work being able to call me whenever and wherever (without remuneration) was not worth the benefit of being able to call my wife and find out what movie to rent.

I've seen QR codes (those odd black and white box-shaped symbols) on posters and in print magazines before. I never felt the benefit of being quickly directed to a webpage while reading a magazine outweighed the effort of downloading the special software required for QR codes to function on my mobile. And as for advertisements on posters, why would I waste my highly-overcharged data for an ad?

It was just this weekend that I finally saw a use of QR codes compelling enough for me to give them a try. We were at the Tim Burton exhibit at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). I'm a huge fan of Tim Burton (although he may have peaked at Big Fish) so I was excited to see props from his movies and learn more about his work. The exhibit did not disappoint - it was amazing!

I noticed there were QR codes interspersed throughout the exhibit. I've read about QR codes used in libraries, art galleries, museums, etc. but I have never seen them used this way in Toronto yet. A similar audio project in Toronto called Murmur for cellphones made good use of mobile-facilitated audio content. I am intrigued, however, by the opportunity that QR codes afford for quickly-delivered audio and video.

In theory, anyway.

I decided to download the software for my mobile (BlackBerry Curve) to read the codes. I chose ScanLife 2D Code Reader as it was free and came up early on the results page ofBlackBerry app world. It downloaded quickly and installed easily. The interface is incredibly easy to use.

The first time I tried it, it worked beautiful. I simply clicked on the ScanLife software icon, chose capture, took a picture, and an introduction on YouTube of the Burton installation loaded fairly quickly.

Subsequent scans did not work so well - or at all. The software doesn't show me guide lines in my camera, so I'm not sure how to best position my camera. Several times I was not able to get the software to recognize a QR code. Taking another picture of the code usually worked, but not always. Also, some times the QR software would only take a picture of the code and nothing else.

I'm not sure if the glitches are the result of the Scanlife software or my BlackBerry? My mobile is not yet 2 years old but already seems obsolete.

As for the content, I think that it needs to be more compelling than the TIFF offered. The commentary by Burton or others was interesting but appeared to be only audio. That might make downloading quicker, but the content should be more fun, unique, and tailored to the medium. At least it would have been fun to have clips from his movies.

I felt like this was just audio guide content reposted to YouTube. I don't like audio guides as they prevent me from interacting with the people I'm with (which is one of the best qualities of going to such events). Audio guides also don't offer the user much control, as in the ability to skip parts or fast forward.

Another problem was that it is difficult to hear audio content unless one wears headphones (which I never carry with me). The exhibit was crowded and noisy, so it was extremely difficult to hear the content unless I put it right against my ear - which then defeats the purpose of having visual content.

The use of QR codes at TIFF was good for specifying what users would get if they scanned the code. But I have often seen them used without any sense of what lies on the other side - so why would I bother? I also see them all the time on the subways, but as my route is mostly underground - they'll never work for me - should be some way to cache the experience and load it when in an area with data access. Or better yet TTC should have 3G or (even better free WiFi) access.

Everyone suffers from Canada's ridiculously over-priced bandwidth costs, so I'm dubious about the role of multimedia via QR codes, as it consumes so much. I think the most viable uses will be things like coupons, third-party reviews, or exclusive content.
As the medium matures and the technical power of mobiles improves, I can, however, imagine QR codes facilitating some incredible experiences. It would be great to have interactive capabilities to display content tailored to your specific interests. Or for art installations, it would be great to be able to interact with digital versions of the art or to add your own inputs and make a new art piece. At the very least, QR codes could be used to facilitate sending digital postcards to friends or subscribing to an email list.

Now that I have the software installed, I'm looking forward to seeing innovative uses of QR codes. It just better be compelling enough to use up my precious, costly bandwidth though.

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