One-way bridges and interim solutions

In my previous post about QR codes I made a couple of points which, after receiving some interesting comments, I’d like to expand on.

I see them [QR codes] occasionally on blogs/web-pages but I just don’t much see the point of that

Shortly after making this point, I suggested on a UKOLN internal mailing list that it might make more sense to include a QR code in a cascading style sheet provided for printing, rather than viewing on the screen. If I want to link my blog/post/webpage to some other web resource, I include a hyperlink (which might be displayed as a title, rather than the raw URL, and so occluded on the screen). If I want to link a print-out of my blog/post/webpage to some other web resource, I can include a hyperlink, being careful to display the actual URL, or I can present a QR code. Or both. Tony Hirst also made the point about CSS for printing in a follow-up post to his original.

I see QR codes as an interim technology, but a potentially useful one, which bridges the gap between paper-based and digital information.

Some context: QR has been around for a while, and is well established in some industrial contexts. However, the aspects of their usage (or of their potential usage) which is of interest to Mia, Tony, Andy as well as Lawrie, Jon and Mike who all commented on my previous post stems from the possibility of wide-spread use by consumers with mobile devices, typically phones.

It seems to me there are two, different, aspects to this:

  1. giving users an easy way of jumping to a virtual resource while they are not immersed in a virtual context
  2. connecting the physical and the virtual worlds

QR codes seem to satisfy the former to some extent. In a comment, Jon mentioned that:

City AM (a free London daily business newspaper) use QR codes printed on the frontpage to drive visitors to their mobile site. It’s a simple idea that does actually work really well. There is clearly great potential for this in any number of marketing/promo activities.

Leaving aside the clunkiness of the iPhone as a QR-reading client device, the user is still required to actively scan the barcode with a handheld camera/scanner. The user must know that they want to, in this case, ‘go’ to the website. I find it hard to imagine that this will ever drive huge volumes of users to such webpages, but I guess that isn’t the point - it’s just ink after all and costs almost nothing…. there’s nothing to lose for the publisher. And even on an iPhone, scanning a QR code to input a URL is still probably quicker and more convenient than typing in a URL read off a piece of paper. As a way of encoding a URL in a machine scannable and readable way on paper, QR codes have the virtue of relative simplicity, very low cost, and a growing capacity among users to exploit them. And having thought more about Tony’s idea for QR codes in the margins of learning materials linking to video clips which supplement the content, I’m now persuaded that this could be worth doing.

In my previous post, I mentioned in passing how it might be interesting to use QR codes in a museum context:

Imagine walking around a museum - scan a QR code attached to an exhibit, load the URL and get a commentary played on the iPhone without needing to supply/hire those dedicated units some institutions supply to visitors.

Now imagine that, rather than having to scan a QR code, my phone automatically knows that it is near a particular exhibit. When I enter the physical space of the museum, I load the virtual space into the browser on my phone. As I stand in front of the physical exhibit, my device orientates me in the virtual space as well. There are are existing technologies which might help get us to this point, such as RFID & GPS. Imagine linking this with something like Graffitio for the iPhone….

Lawrie picked up on my point about ‘bridging the gap’, and Mike said:

It seems to me that the ways in which we begin to bridge the gap between virtual and real is something that is pretty permanent…

I agree with Mike’s sentiment absolutely. How virtual and physical worlds interact, and how technology and people mediate between these ‘places’ is already becoming fascinating. However, I think the fact that we’ve all jumped on the ‘bridge’ metaphor is revealing. A bridge is a narrow, limiting connection between two larger places. The bridge represented by QR codes is, furthermore, one way. We need bi-directional connections…. but that’s another blog post.

In the meantime, and coming down to earth, it’s difficult to see how information from QR codes can ever be pushed to the user. And that, I think, is why in many contexts it can only be an interim solution.

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