Let me come clean: For way too long now, I’ve been excited about the 2D optical code format called QR Code. I even convinced TidBITS to put one on every article page for a while. There’s just something wonderful about using a digital device to access hidden information in an “analog” form, whether it’s printed on a poster, in a magazine, or on a billboard — or shown on someone else’s mobile device.
QR codes encode data as a set of error-resistant areas of black and white. The format is designed to work with poor printing, low light, and fuzzy scanning. It’s resilient! As a result, its information density is relatively low, but most of the time QR codes contain just a URL, a calendar appointment, a Wi-Fi network connection’s details, or the like, so they don’t need to take up much space. You couldn’t use a QR code to encode the text of “Moby-Dick,” though you might create a QR code that has the URL to reach Project Gutenberg’s download page for the tome.
I like to think of QR codes as “analog-to-digital glue,” because they’re useful in situations in which it would be hard to get some data into your mobile device. Google has long taken advantage of this with Google Play, enabling developers to generate a download link as a QR code for the Play app to scan. (Oddly, Android only integrated QR code recognition two years ago. Motorola had built it into their smartphones’ camera app previous to that.)
You can imagine how excited I was when Apple announced that iOS 11 would include automatic QR code recognition in its Camera app — primarily because of the need for it in China. If you haven’t visited Japan in the last 15 years or China in the last 3, or read about how people in those countries use technology, you might be unaware of just how widely QR codes are embraced in those countries.
Will that happen elsewhere in the world now? I hope so, but for practical reasons, as I’ll explain.
The Current Heavy Use of QR Codes -- Japan is where QR codes were developed and promoted by handset makers, cellular carriers, advertisers, and publishers, leading to early high adoption back in the early 2000s. The QR Code format was developed by Denso Wave, which agreed not to enforce its patent.
More recently, Chinese merchants started using QR codes as a cheap form of touchless payment. Instead of expensive NFC (near-field communications) terminals and a need for smartphones with that tech built in, two giant Chinese Internet and e-commerce companies — WeChat and Alibaba — added QR codes as the payment glue in physical stores. A customer either scans a QR code at the retailer’s register and authorizes payment, or they can present a QR code on the phone that the retailer scans to accept payment. In the United States, Walmart has caught on to that concept — see “Walmart Pay Is Better Than You Might Expect” (18 July 2016).
But most uses of QR codes in America and Europe hide their full potential, resorting to simple apps that merely display a QR code for a boarding pass or a rewards club card — Apple’s built-in Wallet app does this. Plus, requiring users to download and launch a special app to scan QR codes hurt adoption by being too high of a barrier to widespread use.
But this obstacle falls away with automatic recognition. As of iOS 11, if a QR code appears anywhere in the Camera app’s field of vision, you’ll get a notification describing the kind of thing encoded. Tap the notification, and the iPhone performs the correct related action, opening a Web page or prompting to add a calendar entry. For a preview, pull down on the notification. (You can disable Scan QR Codes in Settings > Camera if you don’t like this automatic scanning, but it’s easier just to ignore the occasional scanned code.)
What’s interesting about QR codes is that they encode text but don’t define what should be done with it. That’s entirely a function of the scanning app. Over the years, people have invented more and more uses for QR codes, and iOS 11 supports nearly all of them, as do Android and most third-party QR code apps. Most of the forms of information rely on the URI (Universal Resource Identifier) style format of
protocol://addressing, as in a URL, which is
http:// plus the domain name, path, and variables.
The main types of data that the QR Code format can encode are:
URL: The standard URL is the most basic and useful form of QR code. Apple opens QR code URLs in Safari, as you’d expect.
Text: These QR codes could be useful if you want to pass along some plaintext information. I’ve even seen enormous QR codes that encode thousands of words. Apple opted to send the text to Safari as a search when you tap the notification, but reader Alex R. discovered that you can instead pull down on the notification to view and copy the text.
Email Address: Encoded email addresses can include additional elements, like the Subject line. Scanning an email address QR code creates a new message with the encoded information in Mail.
Telephone Number: It’s not that hard to dial a phone number, but scanning one in a QR code is easier because it opens instantly in the Phone app.
Contact Information: QR codes support both the vCard standard format and NTT DoCoMo’s preferred and more compact MECARD. Scanning one imports the contact into the Contacts app.
SMS: QR codes that encode SMS text messages can contain both the destination number and message content. They open in Messages as drafts; you send manually once you’re ready.
Calendar Event: In a calendar event QR code, you can incorporate all the richness of a typical calendar entry, like start and stop time or all-day event, location, time zone, and description. When scanned, they open in Calendar by default. (These rely on the vCal format, an iCal predecessor that’s widely supported, including by Apple.)
Location: These QR codes merely encode a set of coordinates that Maps can display.
Wi-Fi: Popularized by Google with Android, this type of QR code makes it easy to join a Wi-Fi network, complete with the necessary password.
You can also turn to an iOS app. I like Visual Codes by Benjamin Mayo for simple uses. It generates codes onscreen for free and lets you share and print them with a one-time $1.99 in-app purchase. Using an app is also a good option for creating QR codes that contain sensitive information.
Now, how might you use these QR codes in practice?
A Visual Shortcut in a Box -- You can deploy QR codes anywhere that you know someone would have to type something in, to help them bypass that effort, while also making it more likely that they will complete a task or capture additional details. Here are some suggested uses:
Business Cards: For a business card, you might want to embed contact information on the back as a code. Alternatively, consider encoding a URL that links to a vCard that someone can download; the advantage of this approach is that you can change details later without updating your business card. At a trade show or other event, posting the same code on a sign enables attendees to grab your details without you handing off a card.
Posters: Given how often I see people taking pictures of event posters to record the details for later, this is an obvious use case. A poster could have a single QR code with a URL, but you might also consider multiple QR codes: one with the URL to a Web site for more information, another with a calendar event, and a third with location information. Or, imagine a poster at a running race with a QR code that links to the page with live results.
At home: When people visit my house in the future, they’ll be greeted with a QR code! We already have a little sign in the kitchen with our Wi-Fi network’s password. Now we can replace it with a QR code. I’m sure we’ll see cafés and other venues that have password-protected Wi-Fi do the same. Don’t put it on your doormat, though. Anyone who can take a picture of that QR code has all the information they need to access your network.
T-shirts: I could imagine people putting QR codes on clothing to share information in a subtle way that requires some interaction on the part of passers-by. Such a QR code could be as self-involved as social media details, but it could also promote a band or restaurant, or just lead to a joke Web page.
Keep in mind how far someone’s phone will be from the QR code, relative to the information density in the code. The more information you encode, the more detail the camera has to distinguish. That’s no problem close up, like in a book, a business card, or a flyer. When creating QR codes meant to be scanned from far away, as with a billboard or store signage, consider using a URL shortener to make the blockiest, lowest-density QR code possible.
Wide Support Will Generate Emergent Uses -- I’ve listed a few ways you could deploy QR codes, but I’m sure we’ll soon discover other alternatives people come with for QR codes. With iOS 11, hundreds of millions of people suddenly gained access to QR code scanning. And we Apple users aren’t alone: Android 6.0, released in October 2015, added native QR code scanning.
Now that nearly everyone with a smartphone made in the last few years can scan QR codes without needing a special app, it’s time to put QR codes to use anywhere you need to reduce the friction of passing information from the real world to a digital device.