Why QR Codes Are Poised to Hit the Mainstream
Mashable uses Blue Fountain Media's Giant Stickybit to Illustrate future of QR Codes & Barcodes
The QR code, or quick response code, is simply a two-dimensional bar code that came into being in 1994 and found a large audience in Japan. Stateside, however, QR codes — while clever for tying real-world objects to online content — have always remained on the outskirts of public awareness.
Nonetheless, we’ve seen QR codes employed for creative purposes. The Detroit Red Wings interactive programs and the giant QR codes in Times Square come to mind. Each of these serves as prime examples of how QR codes could be on the verge of their breakout moment.
What the technology needs in order to finally make it to the mainstream are applications that take the nerd-factor out of the QR code scan, and drive home the potential rewards of seeing a code, scanning it, and then engaging with the served-up content.
Stickybits and SCVNGR are startups that integrate the barcode scan in intelligent and fun ways. They’re poised to propel the movement of the next generation QR code, and here’s why.
The Potential of Collective Scanning
Stickybits brings context to real-world objects with its next generation approach to the QR code. The mobile app is primarily a barcode scanner — powered by Red Laser — but it takes the technology into the realm of fun by creating a social and shared experience around any item in the physical world that possesses a barcode.
Download the iPhone or Android application, scan your favorite cereal box, add an item — maybe a related recipe, but any video, photo, audio clip or comment will do — and you’ve just started a digital thread around that item.
Where Stickybits succeeds is in making the scan feel familiar. People have already caught on to using Red Laser to scan barcodes on packages for comparison pricing. So Stickybits is nothing more than a barcode scanner for comparison multimedia conversations. Same idea, different application.
It’s this approach that could finally help to bridge the gap between barcodes on packages and the still unfamiliar QR codes popping up in the real world. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Stickybits scans standard barcodes and QR codes, which eliminates the need for users to hunt down other QR code scanner apps.
Of course, Stickybits offers tons of potential for both brands and marketers. The service essentially creates a social graph around things (products), so that alone makes it a new platform for digital exposure.
The brands and marketers that can motivate fans to take to product-related conversation chains via Stickybits, with or without a nudge in the right direction, could find a distinct advantage over competitors. This is especially true for brands that find meaningful ways to participate, even it if is just by listening or following along. In this way, Stickybits is like a new frontier for savvy early adopter brands.
Stickybits also makes more aggressive brand plays possible. Pepsi, for example, signed on as a sponsor. Stickybits users who scan Pepsi cans and other Pepsi products will see a sponsored message from Pepsi atop the bits threads. It’s somewhat akin to Twitter’s Promoted Tweets, and could prove to be both a money-making vehicle for Stickybits and an alternative way for advertisers to get exposure.
Success in this realm will certainly depend on the branded message that scanners see. Anything too pushy will discourage app users from scanning product barcodes, which would be a lose-lose for everyone.
For more guerilla-style street campaigns, Stickybits sells barcode stickers, and users can print codes onto gear or download and print their own codes from home.
Gaming and QR Codes, A Perfect Match
Location-based services have been around for years. Loopt and Brightkite were early pioneers in encouraging mobile owners to share their location with friends via GPS-enabled devices.
Both services are still around today and each have their own appeal, but Foursquare, the second coming of Dodgeball, has pushed location-sharing into mainstream hands. Foursquare did it by hooking users with simple and engaging game mechanics, and now everyone, especially Yelp, is anxious to follow suit.
SCVNGR — which bills itself as a mobile way to participate in place-based, scavenger hunt-like challenges — is in part a checkin application, but with the gaming experience at the core of the service. Users can check-in at a venue using the SCVNGR mobile app, but it’s what happens after the checkin that makes this an application worthy of note.
SCVNGR is all about activity, and while it can be used as a Foursquare alternative, there’s so much business appeal here that it kind of exists in a new category of its own. Cities, museums, small businesses, universities and even brokers have already turned to SCVNGR to create their own location-based treks for customers or fans.
goSmithsonian, for instance, used SCVNGR to build a trek through nine of the Smithsonian museums that require solving clues and completing challenges. More recently The Boston Globe’s trek involved five different content-driven, city-based challenges. Treks are about mobile, challenge-based discovery, so they’re certainly Foursquare and Gowalla-esque in nature, but as the Smithsonian and The Boston Globe examples demonstrate, there’s more here than just checkins.
It’s within these challenges and treks where QR codes make their appearance and find real-life relevance. SCVNGR supports QR code challenges, so players can be tasked to scan a QR code to complete the challenge and earn the points. Of course, the QR code challenge is also a nearly fail-proof way to ensure that a player is where they say they are, which means it adds verification to the checkin.
Since the application doubles as a QR code scanner, the scanning activity happens right within the game and helps to familiarize users with the foreign notion of a barcode scan. It’s this familiarization that will help make QR codes recognizable and decodable to the human eye.
Obviously marketers and brands alike have shown an increasing interest in creative location-based initiatives. As interest continues to grow in this space, SCVNGR has a solid shot at becoming the de facto mobile application to facilitate mobile scavenger hunts, and propel QR codes to mainstream adoption.
Challenges Still Remain
Amidst all the possibilities, barcode scanning apps and services still face a number of obstacles before the general public will embrace them.
The biggest hurdle is the fact that there are so many disparate applications that support QR code scanning, each with their own purpose or twist. Of course, there’s also custom barcode/scanner services like Microsoft Tag, which is progressive in its own way but requires that users have a special app (they can’t use generic QR code scanners) to process Tag codes in the real world.
It’s asking too much of people to make them distinguish between a regular barcode, a QR code and some other custom code. We need simplification and standards.
The barcode scan is also heavily dependent on the user wanting to interact with it. They have to pull out their smartphone, load up an app and scan the code in question. It’s a matter of a few seconds, but the barcode is likely a missed opportunity, lost in the real world as real people race to get from point A to point B. Thankfully, Stickybits and SCVNGR both tackle the “why should I scan this?” problem, and we’ll be watching closely to see if that’s enough to push this edgy technology beyond the niche.
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