May 182011

Today we thought we would share the GECO leaflet [PDF] we have been creating for the INSPIRE conference which takes place in Edinburgh next month. We would love you to download that flyer and share it with colleagues, on your website, or wherever you think it might be useful. But you should know that this is no ordinary flyer!

In addition to the adorable wee GECO logo we have loaded the flyer with information about every one of the #jiscGEO projects by using some clever but weird looking images:The QR code for the GeoSciTeach websiteThese odd graphics – which you may have seen on phone books, posters, and various other items – are known as “QR codes” (short for “Quick Response”) or 2D barcodes. The images are actually a way to encode data so that you can scan the code with your smartphone (or webcam) by taking a quick snap. Once captured a QR code reading software on your smartphone can read the attached data – which could be some text, a URL or a redirection to an image or video.

So, Why are QR Codes so Useful?

Well it’s not because of the technology itself (which has been around for some time) but because of the way QR codes allow information to be accessed in the context of a particular location in space or time. The codes can be read on the move using technology in most people’s pockets and thus provide an unusual opportunity for people to interact with the built environment, decorative objects, and with things just glanced in passing (a t-shirt, an advertisement, an information sign).

We are used to seeing (traditional) barcodes on almost every item we buy – even a piece of unpackaged fruit tends to carry one of these ubiquitous stripey stickers now. We are even used to scanning these codes as self-serve machines enter supermarkets and as we start to use webcams to catalogue personal book collections. But barcodes are traditionally functional objects used for stocktaking, tracking, distribution and record keeping.

We are getting increasingly used to carrying around basic GPS on our smartphones and that is enabling us to engage with our locations in new and novel ways – checking the next buses to arrive at nearby stops, posting images with geotags, filtering tweets or adverts that to those relate to a location we are currently standing in. QR codes open this type of localised context up to those phones that do not include GPS, those who aren’t able or do not want to use mobile broadband, and those who want a more fine grained and personalised sense of context and exploration.

GPS  can enable hugely playful experiences – from Geocaching to eccentric personal maps of images, favourite pubs, foraging grounds – and QR codes add all sorts of additional dimensions of the possibility for being creative with location, context and experience.

QR Codes in the Wild: Tales of Things

A particularly interesting example of making use of the idea of using QR codes to add personalised context is the Tales of Things, a website and project (ToTEM) from Brunel University, Edinburgh College of Art, University College London, the University of Dundee, and the University of Salford.

Tales of Things (ToT) takes the idea of an object, part of the “Internet of Things“, and the ideas and history that it embodies and encourages people to turn these personal and emotional memories and experiences and turn them into tangible stories to be shared with others.

Screen Capture of the Tales of Things website

Users print or request QR codes from ToT and use these to label personal items – these might be items at home, art or craft pieces that will go on to be sold, items to be donated to a shop or gallery and, in a recent example, artefacts in a museum. The user then creates their story about that item – it might be a video about their affection for particular piece, a description of fabrication methods, a sound recording of a particularly silly anecdote or important fact about the item.

This is a forum for story telling, interaction with items in specific time(s) and place(s) (items can be geotagged in the process) and experience sharing. What makes this feel magical is the experience of scanning codes others have already created – you can see their experience, add your own, create new comments, etc. A browser in an Oxfam shop finding out about the item they are purchasing; the teenager discovering new things about an item in the local museum; the purchaser of a piece of pottery watching how it has been made, decorated and completed.

A screen shot of a "thing" record on Tales of Things

An example "thing": this is a t-shirt that a researcher on the Tales of Things project is wearing when giving talks and presentations.


This hybrid experience of the virtual world of stories, experiences and rich content blending with the very tangible physical geographic context is a form of augmented reality and it therefore no surprise that more sophisticated AR experiences (for more on which the recent JISC Observatory report from Ben Butchart [PDF] is worth a read) are utilising both QR codes and location information to enable strange new experiences of place.

Our QR codes on the flyer are not quite so ambitious but the new leaflet seemed like the perfect excuse to share the possibilities of these clever strange little barcodes!

 May 18, 2011  Posted by at 5:11 pm 15/10 Projects, Culture, Misc. Tagged with: , , , ,

  4 Responses to “What are those weird looking barcodes?”

  1. In some cases a short URL could be used instead of a QR code/2D barcode, but the later does add a sense that it will take you to somewhere/thing interesting. As you said, they also stand out more.

    “QR codes open this type of localised context up to those phones that do not include GPS, those who aren’t able or do not want to use mobile broadband.” How is that so?

    • “QR codes open this type of localised context up to those phones that do not include GPS, those who aren’t able or do not want to use mobile broadband.” How is that so?

      Taking each of these separately:

      QR codes rather than GPS – providing data in a specific local context allows for sharing location specific information without the user needing to know where they are and without them accessing mapped information but still adding to their sense of being in a particular place at a particular time. For want of a more sophisticated analogy I think of QR as potentially possessing some of the same orientation qualities as a map of an area with a big “you are here” marker and various indications of what is near you at a given time.

      QR codes without broadband – one of the problems with seeing information when you are out and about is capturing it, particularly if it is a great website or URL that can be tricky to type into a phone or write down – you can easily grab the URL wrongly or quickly forget why it was useful. You can, however, share URLs via a QR code in a more accessible way: you can include text with a URL so that even without a mobile broadband connection the phone user understands whether or not that URL will be useful and can choose to keep or ignore it; you can ensure the URL is always transferred consistently so that when a URL is looked up later on it will be correct.

      Of course you can also transmit all manner of content that is useful right away without URLs – QR codes can be used to share text of any type: a nugget of location-specific history; a tip about local wildlife; contact information; a treasure hunt clue; directions to another area… etc.

      Interestingly the size of the QR code does make a difference to the amount of information that can be stored. A shorter URL or a numerical URL is much easier to show as a small QR code and there are some people experimenting with ways to redirect from small QR codes to much more complex URLs or sets of data but these rely much more upon the use of mobile broadband.

  2. Another great QR code link has just been sent my way – this time it is QR codes as cross-stitched art work:

  3. In Cologne, Germany my eagle eyes spotted a QR code in tiles stuck to a concrete plant pot/wall. Sadly about 1/5 of the tiles had been knocked off and it didn’t scan.

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