Why use a barcode reader on my phone?

Barcodes have evolved a long since they were first used to keep track of railroad cars. Someone called Norman Joseph Woodland invented the barcode way back in 1948 when he was drawing lines and dots on sand on the beach. What a nerd! But the initial barcodes, being unreliable, didn’t make it too big commercially. Then in 1966 some wise people at NAFC and Kroger Grocery decided that they needed some digital mechanism to keep track of products. So they, along with consulting firm McKinsey and Co. developed an 11 digit code to identify any product. They send this to several companies, including IBM, asking them to built a barcode system based on this standard. Several prototypes were tried, but on April 3, 1973, under the guidance of Woodland, IBM succeded in developing a satisfactory standard. This standard known as IBM UPC Code was about to change consumer markets around the world.

UPC began appearing everywhere – products, books, parcels, tickets, tags, IDs… you name it, they got a barcode on it. Barcodes were even placed on bees to track their mating habits. But the problem with these 1D barcode was that they could store only a limited amount of data and they needed a database from which the reader could retrieve information. Then came 2D barcodes.

Data Matrix, invented by ID Matrix and later acquired by Siemens AG, could hold upto 2KB of information. This enabled these kinds of barcodes to hold large amount of information on a small space. Data Matrix was selected by several agencies including Electronic Industries Alliance and US Department of Defence as the standard for labelling components. But in the other part of the globe in Japan, the people were unsatisfied with Data Matrix’s unabilty to encode Japanese characters in it and they invented the QR (Quick Response) Code. The QR Code being open source, was quickly adopted by companies like Google and developers all around the world. Data Matrix and QR Code are currently the most popular 2D barcodes in use.

Application of barcode were noticed when the game Barcode Battler was launched. This game published special characters. On scanning the barcode, the user could add these characters to their game. Although the game flopped in US, it became a massive hit in Japan. Other games such as Barcode World, Dragon Slayer II and Doroman among others were developed in the same manner.

Meanwhile the mobile companies had developed their products to the extent that quality cameras is now a common component of any standard mobile phone. It was only natural that a mobile camera could caputre detailed images of barcodes and decode them. Data Matrix and QR Code could hold enough information to provide useful data to be scanned and retrieved by mobile phones. They can hold vCard, URL, text or anything. Companies began to put them in ads in such a way that on being scanned by a device, it would open the device’s browser and take the users straight to the encoded URL. This method of linking the offline world with the online world is known as hardlinking. It is now common to see ads with barcodes it them. These barcodes are for your mobile phones.

Apart from advertisements on newspapers and magazines, hardlinks on articles and visiting cards, mobile phone scannable 2D codes have been used in many other instances. Some notable are:

  • Since 2006 the Italian artist Fabrice de Nola uses QR codes in oil paintings or embedded in photographs.
  • In 2007 the British pop group Pet Shop Boys used QR code for the artwork of their download-only single Integral. The videoclip for the song also features QR code. When the codes are scanned, users are directed to the Pet Shop Boys website, and web pages about the British national identity card plans, respectively.
  • In 2008, the Australian born artist Simone O’Callaghan created a series of screenprinted artworks called RGB, based on QR codes. Here she challenged the latitudes of scanning technologies by altering the codes to take on more organic and less pixelated forms, whilst still ensuring that they could be scanned by a mobile phone. They link to quotes about media. She also exhibited another series of works called home.html featuring QR codes linking the photographic prints to online content about the places in which the images were taken. They were exhibited as part of an exhibition called Signals in the City at the Hannah McLure, Abertay University, Dundee, Scotland.
  • In 2009 the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, in collaboration with creative agency SET and Louis Vuitton, created a design QR featuring the LV pattern and one of the artist’s characters.
  • In 2010 the musician and artist DJ Spooky used QR code in a fine art print exhibited at Experimenta Biennale, Melbourne. Scanning the code takes users to an experiential web based artwork called the Nauru Ellegies, about the complexities of the South Pacific island of Nauru.
  • A QR code which scans to produce the word “LOVE” was also featured prominently in Australian artist Kylie Minogue’s music video for her 2010 single All The Lovers.
  • In June 2010, the Design Exchange, Canada’s National Design Centre, unveiled a large QR installed created by Rollout Wallpaper. Rollout Wallpaper is a custom wallpaper company operating in Vancouver. The installation is part of the ‘Bent Out of Shape’ exhibit, curated by Design Exchange staff.
  • In July 2010 SYCO Music recording artist Labrinth started using QR Codes as part of a campaign to promote his debut single “Let The Sun Shine”. As well as a cartoon video to educate users on how to use QR Codes, they were placed in different media ranging from street posters & stickers to music videos, websites and social networks. The QR Codes take users through to Labrinth’s YouTube videos, website and social network profile.
  • The webcomic QR Comic is made entirely out of QR codes. The first 28 entries are Isaac Asimov’s short story The Last Question converted into QR codes.
  • The 2010 comic, Carnivale De Robotique uses a QR Code to reveal a subplot in its third issue.
  • In October 2010, at the Toronto International Art Fair, artist Jeff Tallon displayed Canada’s first QR Code painting in collaboration with the Engine Gallery. The work was a diptych that, when scanned, provided information about the adjoining panel.   QR Codes can be seen on an art festival map for Canton Ohio’s “First Friday”. The QR Code was designed by Think Roth, a multi-media marketing company from Ohio. The QR Code on the festival’s map takes you to a “phone friendly” map with coupons for free coffee and art discounts around town.
  • In street art, La Pluma Eléctri*k (street art collective based in Madrid) and Space Invader (from France) are two artists who use it in the street for art purposes.
  • In July 2009, QR-code was created for character design and promotional materials in the Shane Acker film 9. The use of QR-code was part of the characters in the movie and culminated into a promotional campaign with unique QR-code cards, posters and street advertisements on billboards or public transportation for major popular art events. These advertisements were largely focused upon the attendees of the 2009 San Diego Comic Con and 2009 Oscars. QR-codes were integrated into the artwork and symbolized individual characters in the movie. Instructional pamphlets and videos were released to explain how the codes could be retrieved and deciphered. QR-coded artworks could be read with QR-capable cellphones for prizes and access to exclusive online content. This was one of the first major integrations of QR-code with Hollywood studios and urban environments.
  • QR Codes have been used to interpret natural and historical points of interest on nature trails and walking tours, adding to or replacing expensive signs.
  • A games development company called Media Molecule created a game with the name of LittleBigPlanet 2 for the PlayStation 3 with QR Code compatibility. The Games web portal, LBP.me has created a QR Code for every user generated level in the game and all you have to do is print that QR code out and hold it infront of the Playstation 3’s dedicated camera, the PlayStation Eye, while the game is running and the game will automatically take you that level on the community page.

Although barcodes are actively being used everywhere, the use of barcodes is bound to increase. Several free barcode readers are available in OVI Store (Nokia), Market (Android) and Apple Store (iPhone). Download one of them and prepare for the future.