The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of barcodes are those blocks of lines on the backs of grocery-store items. Generally, these linear barcodes are used for cataloguing and purchasing goods and not much else. Now, with smartphone use on the rise and device capabilities constantly improving, a different kind of barcode is becoming increasingly common—QR codes.
Ask many people what a QR—or quick response—code is and typical reactions will include head scratching, shoulder shrugging, and many an “I don’t know.” But show them the little boxes with the black-and-white patterns that are popping up in the corners of billboards, posters, and ads, and they’ll likely pull out their phones to see what that code has to offer.
“It’s convenient when I’m using my phone,” Christina de Castell, manager of online information and news at the Vancouver Public Library, told the Georgia Straight by phone. “It’s easier to scan a QR code than to type in a search.”
Developed in the mid 1990s by Toyota, QR codes—a type of two-dimensional barcode—were intended to be quicker and easier for machines to read while also storing more information. Since the technology was made available licence-free, it allowed other developers to adapt it for a variety of uses.
Fast-forward a decade and a half, and the codes can now be found on all kinds of media. For de Castell, QR codes are simply a way to get somebody something they need quicker than before, which is why the VPL introduced them last year.
“At the library, we’ve got QR codes on our new bookshelves that people can use to get a list of other new books at the library,” de Castell said. “That means they’re instantly interacting and can browse for new books right away, without having to wait until they get home or remember until they get in front of a computer.”
She added that the library has also used QR codes in magazine ads.
Other increasingly prevalent uses for the codes—apart from the all-too-common ad linking to a brand’s website—include recipes at the supermarket, links to artist videos at galleries, and professionals putting them on business cards.
“The potential is almost unlimited,” Mark Binns, chief marketing officer for Mobio Technologies—a Vancouver company that helps companies take advantage of QR codes—said by phone. “I mean, there’s the really boring use where you scan and are then taken to a website, but the more interesting stuff is around payments.”
An example of the latter, Binns noted, is one local coffee company that has ads on various transit routes.
“You can scan the barcode when you’re 10 minutes away [from your stop] and you’re taken to the Ethical Bean Coffee menu, where you can select the coffee you want and how you want it, your morning muffin, and then you can pay for it instantly on your smartphone,” he said. “Then you just show up and everything’s waiting for you—no lining up required.”
And if, coffee in hand, you end up wandering around Gastown, keep an eye out for more of the codes in the windows of some of the neighbourhood’s heritage buildings. They’re part of an ongoing initiative by the Gastown Business Improvement Society.
“A lot of people are interested in the history of the area and have no idea where to start,” Leanore Sali, executive director of the society, said by phone.
To remedy this, the society stuck codes on some of the buildings that, when scanned, link to the history of the site as well as photographs of how it looked as far back as the turn of the century.
“We used to do guided tours of the area,” Sali said. “Now, when you scan these building codes, you can do your own walking tour at your own pace. We hope to eventually have them in every building in the area.”
“They are bridging the gap between the offline world and the online world,” Binns said. “If you look at static media such as a newspaper or a poster, so far those media can only push you a message; they can’t interact with you. If you put a QR code on it, suddenly there’s much more to it.”