QR Codes

QR Codes are not to be confused with Space Invaders.

This is a Space Invader:Space Invaders Grafitti

This is a QR Code:A sample of a QR Code - David Leonard's Business Card

What they have in common is that they’ve both been popping up in public places for the last couple of years. I think I used to be a bit confused about what they are and whether they are somehow related to each other. They are not. The Space Invaders are graffiti, composed of ceramic tesserae in patterns recalling the old Pacman and Space Invaders computer games of 30-odd years ago. These graffiti pop up unexpectedly all over London and always give me the same smile as spotting a new Banksy.

QR Codes, on the other hand, are like barcodes. They contain information that can be instantly “read” and transferred to the device that reads them. Barcodes in supermarkets are usually read by laser beams. QR Codes are read by the camera on a smartphone or tablet computer (or even a laptop computer if you feel like opening it up in the street and pointing the camera at shop windows, posters, etcetera). The software that captures the image extracts the data from it and sends it on to somewhere else (such as creating a new contact in an address book or automatically completing a website address in a browser).

What’s the point? They make capturing information for later use very simple. How often have you wanted to record something that you see (such as a phone number) for later use, but haven’t had a pen or haven’t thought it worth stopping to dig out out a pencil and paper, etc? This, of course, is one of the great uses of the camera on a mobile phone. Just take a picture of something you want to turn your attention to later and let the image on your phone serve as a visual reminder. You do have to be a little careful when doing this sometimes. Believe it or not, I was asked to leave PC World in Tottenham Court Road a few months ago for photographing a laptop I was shortlisting. My claim to fame as a computer consultant – ejected from PC World. Oh, the shame of it.

Anyway, QR Codes take these “reminder snapshots” a stage further by extracting text embedded in the image and passing that text straight to where you need it – the address bar of a browser, for instance, or your address book.

I suppose that there’s a chance that QR Codes (Quick Response Codes) may not become universally used. Passing contact details between mobile phones via bluetooth never caught on widely. My guess, though, is that they are here to stay because they’re so easy. You can definitely pass contact details between mobile phones more quickly by QR Code than by manually inputting the data (and there’s no chance of typos). Nevertheless, I can imagine half the people reading this blog echoing Shirley Conran’s opinion that “Life’s too short to stuff a mushroom”. I recommend that if you use a smartphone and you know how to install an app then QR Codes are well worth spending just a few minutes on. Who knows, they may save you enough time in the future that you can afford to spend some of it stuffing mushrooms.

And if you do decide that you’re firmly in the Shirley Conran camp, at least you now know what those strange square boxes are all about.

Pacman and paint roller graffiti spotted in Rathbone Place, W1, on 13/04/12
PS: I’ve just had a thought. How would PC World have reacted to my phone’s camera if I had been capturing a QR Code and not taking a picture of a potential purchase? Hmm, I think I’ll stick to my usual purchasing policy regarding PC World – only do it when I know they are the cheapest, when I don’t have to ask them anything at all, and when there’s very very little chance of having to return it.