I spent half an hour this morning experimenting with QR barcodes, prompted by Andy Ramsden who is running a small test/survey. I used various iPhone clients to try to decode and make use of three QR codes printed on a sheet of paper. Each of the three codes encoded different information - a URL, a simple string of text, and an SMS message with mobile number respectively.

It transpires that the iPhone does not make a first-class QR decoder. There may be several factors involved here, but the main one seems to be the rather poor camera which often lets the iPhone down. Having tried several (free) clients with mixed - but generally disappointing - results I settled on ' Barcodes' which works rather well, insofar as the iPhone allows it to. One important tip with the iPhone is to take the photograph from a distance of around 18 inches from the QR code - this is counter-intuitive, but it works better within the tolerances of the fixed lense and means that you then have to stretch the image with an iPhone 'gesture'. Again, this actually worked quite well, but it is a shame that all of this is even necessary. My Nokia-toting friends tell me that it works so well on that platform that it is actually fun, rather than a little chore. Having said that, once the image capture stage is done, Barcodes on the iPhone was actually really good. It interpreted codes correctly, figured out which applications to launch (Safari web browser or SMS client) and was generally well designed. I won't comment further on the details of the experiment and the results as Andy is going to write this up himself.

So, QR codes - what are they good for? There's clearly some interest - I mentioned what I was doing on Twitter and got quite a bit of interest. But it's still rare to come across QR codes in the wild. I see them occasionally on blogs/web-pages but I just don't much see the point of that (except to allow people like me to experiment). I see QR codes as an interim technology, but a potentially useful one, which bridges the gap between paper-based and digital information. So long as paper documents are an important aspect of our lives (no sign of that paper-less office yet) then this would seem to be potentially useful.

Mia Ridge, who joined the Twitter discussion has also blogged some thought about this - linking to Tony Hirst who mused about embedding links to video clips in QR codes in the margins of paper-based learning materials. Interesting idea? Not entirely convinced, but Mia reckons she would use this.

There seem to be so many factors at work here. If I had a Nokia, with a small screen but quick & direct QR reader, then Tony's idea would make more sense to me perhaps. With my iPhone, and it's wonderful big screen and Safari browser but poor QR support, I'd want to read one QR code at the start so I already had the accompanying website for the learning material/course/lesson and be able to navigate around on the device, not on the paper. This is a different model to Tony's - his is driven by making a direct connection between one section of a paper document and single digital artifact.

Nonetheless - there are plenty of similar opportunities. 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.

The client end of this type of system still has a way to go I guess....