Quick Response (QR) codes take the concept of barcodes to the next level

Over the past few decades, we’ve focussed our energies on migrating information from the physical world on pen-and-paper into digital formats. In the process, we’ve created large information troves on the Internet using computers to be able to organise and store all the data we have. And computers have merely been helping us process this information.

But the future is in the converse: where computers begin to observe, assimilate and report the physical world.

Of course, computers don’t interact with the physical world like us; so we create tools that allow computers to do so. Take, for instance, barcodes. Here, vertical lines are scanned using a thin beam of light (usually laser), and this allows a computer to identify a book or a product without having to feed this information into the computing system. We see this at counters at grocery stores, supermarkets and libraries. The future of the Web will be somewhat similar but far more sophisticated, wherein computers will identify our physical world by looking at it, much like we do: with ‘digital eyes’ using semiconductor-based cameras.

QR codes

Original barcodes comprise patterns made of parallel lines varying in width, conveying a sequence of ones and zeroes, which the computer can scan to decode into a matching number or interpret as any other relevant information. Using a dedicated scanning tool has been an inherent problem of the barcode system. Today, with digital cameras becoming ubiquitous — webcams on desktops, laptops, phones and mobile computing devices — we can simply write software that can convert the images of barcodes into the relevant information without having to scan the code using laser beam.

Quick Response codes, or QR codes, take the concept of barcodes to the next level.

QR codes are two dimensional patterns, usually of black modules on white background, which can hold a lot more information than conventional barcodes. Not just numbers, but names, Web URLs, or text material too can be encoded into these codes. Once encoded and a QR code is generated, it can be printed on an advertising hoarding or a product, and the cues are ready for computers to make sense of. Decoding QR codes to retrieve this information requires the computer to observe the QR code via its digital camera, software to decode this information and connectivity to fetch relevant information from the Internet.

How it works

QR codes are square images, with smaller black spots holding the binary information, in a manner vertical lines convey characters in barcode. Three squares on three corners of the QR code and a smaller square off the fourth corner help a computer identify the orientation of QR code. Keeping these corners as reference, the rest of the information is processed using simple image processing techniques to decode the binary pattern into a mobile number, name or URL. After decoding this information, a phone call if it is a number, or a search result from the Internet if it is a URL are instigated using software programmes.

In marketing

QR codes are all set to become the next big thing in marketing. For, if the link to purchase a product is shown on an advertisement hoarding as QR code, the chances of converting the advertisement into a sale is higher.

However, being an all-new technology, there is a learning curve involved. Hence, building awareness on QR codes is important before this can really catch on.

Another concern is security. There is a good chance that QR codes of legitimate sites can be tampered to lead users into dangerous websites, or other security risks. These security risks have acquired a portmanteau term “attagging” (derived from attack and tagging). Creating secure and unique QR codes will be another challenge.

Google Goggles

Most smartphone operating systems (iOS, Android, Symbian) support QR code reading. Light and simple software packages from their respective application stores can be used to integrate with the on-board cameras to provide an extra bit of intelligence to the smartphones, making them smarter!

The most popular of such packages is Google Goggles. This app by Google is more than a QR code reader: it is Google’s debut in using images for search. When installed on smartphones, the phone operating system attempts to identify the pictures that are being clicked by looking up for the tags in pictures.

Identifying website logos, famous monuments are the features Google Goggles is capable of. By embedding a QR code in a poster, or a commodity, when the user scans the code using a smartphone camera, the information is immediately suggested.

QR codes with help of tools like Google Goggles are helping us inch closer to bridging the divide between computers understanding the physical world.