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QR Codes 101

Feb 1, 2011 12:00 AM


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In the past two years, we've heard quite a Quick Response (QR) Code buzz in the printing industry. In an increasingly wireless world, they offer instant gratification. Invented in Japan in 1994, these codes are becoming more commonplace in the United States, particularly as smart phone usage grows.

QR Codes are two-dimensional matrix (as opposed to bar) codes that connect the physical world to the Internet. The connection takes place when a user scans a QR Code using a smart phone equipped with a camera and appropriate application. Denso-Wave, the inventor, retains the patent but allows anyone to use it license-free (see www.denso-wave.com/qrcode/aboutqr-e.html). It is now a published ISO standard that any company may use to encode text data, including URLs, into a scannable image. (See “Quick Response,” July 2010.)

QR Codes — as well as ScanLife Ezcode, Microsoft Tag and the other 50 or so types of 2-D codes in the public domain — provide a lighting-fast connection between advertisers and consumers. Advertising typically contains a call to action: A consumer is asked to call a phone number, go to a store, visit a domain, etc. With most advertising vehicles, there's a lag time — a gap between consumer awareness and any subsequent action. Mobile marketers call this “drop off.” 2-D codes eliminate that lag time. A person can scan the code and immediately activate the mobile action with an instant response on his or her phone screen.

Scanning a 2-D code eliminates the need for the user to manually key text — the code immediately transports the user to a URL, plays a video or displays text. A 2-D code storing a URL can be printed in magazines or on signs, business cards, buildings or just about any physical object where a person interacting with it might need information.

There are many creative uses for 2-D codes and many yet to be invented. Careful thought and execution is the key to success when incorporating 2-D codes into a business model or marketing campaign. Properly executed, they are a great way to augment a business.

It's best to test, test and test

It only takes one negative experience to alienate consumers. Test your codes with several different mobile devices. Just because a code resolves on one device doesn't mean it will work properly on another. For true verification, use a professional-grade barcode scanner.

At Impressions, we use an Integra 9500 scanner. It provides a detailed report and overall grades ranging from A to F. Just as with most schools, “C” and higher are passing grades.

Make it as easy as possible

Realistically, some consumers won't know what 2-D codes (or QR Codes) are. Others might be familiar with the concept but hazy on using them. Be descriptive in your marketing. Include a sentence along the lines of, “Scan this code with your mobile phone. You'll need a free reader — download it here: [URL]. Or, simply text [CODE] to this number.” Keep it simple.

Know the lingo

Technically, two-dimensional (matrix) codes such as ScanLife Ezcode, Microsoft Tag, and the other 50 or so types of 2-D codes in the public domain aren't QR Codes. Referring to them as QR Codes is the same as saying you Googled something on the Internet when, in fact, you used Yahoo.

Arguably, all 2-D codes can be referred to as quick-response codes — they all work swiftly. But as a brand, “QR Code” is specific to Denso-Wave while the term “2-D code” encompasses all varieties of this technology.

Take a closer look

Unlike one-dimensional UPC barcodes, a two-dimensional (matrix) code can contain information on both the vertical and horizontal axes. Significantly more data can be embedded in 2-D codes vs. their UPC counterparts.

With EAN/UPC barcodes, only the horizontal white space between the black lines is read to extract the embedded data. Depending on the type and length, a traditional barcode can hold anywhere between 6 and 50 characters. 2-D codes can store up to 7,089 numeric characters or 4,296 alphanumeric characters. Three position detection patterns — the smaller squares seen within three corners of a QR Code — enable them to be read in any direction.

The mighty module

A QR Code's smallest element is called a module. To comply with most mobile phones' lens capabilities, it shouldn't be less than 1 mm in size. High-end handheld readers can have smaller apertures and thus can read smaller modules.

The combined symbol size and quiet zone determine the overall image size. “Symbol size” refers to a code's symbol width from black edge to black edge. The “quiet zone” is a white border that ensures devices can read the code. The quiet zone should be a minimum of four modules wide.

As camera phones continue to improve, a QR Code's minimum size continues to shrink. About 90% of the phones currently on the market can read codes with a width and height of 26 × 26 mm (1 in. sq.).

But to ensure the broadest reading success rate across a wide variety of phones, the code should be 32 × 32 mm (1.25 × 1.25 in.) excluding the quiet zone. Newer camera models with improved macro capabilities can read QR Codes that are less than 10 mm (0.4 in.) wide and high.

Size considerations

The more data encoded, the higher the pixel count. If there is too much data, the mobile reader can't resolve the code. The simpler the code, the greater the chance it will decode successfully on a wide range of mobile devices.

Shorten the string

URL shorteners help reduce the amount of information in a 2-D code, thus its complexity and size. Suppose you started with www.i-i.com/capabilities/packaging_folding.html.

Here's what that 2-D code looks like (at left, top). The lengthy URL and attendant number of characters results in lots of modules.

Using a URL shortener (Google URL Shortener, bit.ly, tinyurl.com, etc.), we can produce a much simpler code — http://goo.gl/H3ooG — that still resolves to the same URL.

The resulting 2-D code (at left, bottom) is significantly simpler.

When a user scans the 2-D code created with this shortened URL, an HTTP request is sent to the server where the link was shortened. The server maps the shortened code to the full URL in its database, then redirects the user from its site to the final destination page.

Choose wisely

There are nearly 50 types of 2D codes in the public domain. Datamatrix and QR Codes are the top contenders for most mobile marketing applications. Both offer non-proprietary, downloadable decoders. (In some cases, particularly with newer models, the decoders are preloaded on the mobile phone.)

Datamatrix is the most supported and efficient type of 2D code. It has more third-party industry support for creating and decoding codes. Because they are more compact, the code will either be smaller or can be read at a greater distance if printed the same size as another code.

Datamatrix is 30% to 60% more spatially efficient for encoding the same data — it's easier to fit the code on the page or screen. “Datamatrix has proven to be the most space efficient of all the two-dimensional symbologies,” according to the Consumer Electronics Assn.'s R9 Automatic Data Capture group in a comparison done while developing the IEC 62090 specification.

Datamatrix and QR Codes can be created using a variety of 2-D code generators. Codes such as Ezcode and Microsoft Tag are proprietary; other generators can't create them. Users might find themselves in a vulnerable position if a provider of proprietary codes exits the business, encounters server issues or starts charging for a formerly free service. (See “QR Codes vs. MS Tags,” January 2011.)

Cracking the code
A cheat sheet for would-be code warriors

Just the facts

  1. QR Codes were invented in 1994 as a means to inventory automobile parts. They are a registered trademark of DensoWave, a Toyota subsidiary.

  2. Denso-Wave retains the patent but allows anyone to use the QR Code license-free. It is now a published ISO standard that any company may use to encode text data, including URLs, into a scannable image.

  3. QR Codes are comprised of cells that represent bits.

  4. Most 2-D codes are monochrome while MS tags are 4-color. The QR Code is the most widely used, primarily because it can hold the most data.

  5. Microsoft Tag codes account for the lion's share of the mobile action code market; QR Codes are a distant second. JagTag and other tags that require the user to take a picture and send it to a URL account for a fraction of the market.

  6. Approximately 30% of QR Code data is redundant, which allows for data correction if the symbol is partially damaged.

How it works

  1. An advertiser creates and places a QR Code, Microsoft Tag (shown) or other 2-D code in a printed piece or publication.

  2. Next, the user takes a picture of the code with a smartphone. The phone app sends instructions via the Internet to start the mobile engagement.

  3. A mobile service receives instructions and initiates a mobile experience delivered via an application or a web browser.

Key points for printing a la code

  1. Keep the code simple.

  2. Using a code as a pointer to a URL (online) is more efficient than storing all of the information in the code (offline).

  3. Offline codes should be used for small amounts of text such as a phone number or contact information.

  4. A URL shortener can be used to reduce the number of characters and final pixel count. In general, codes should be a minimum of one square inch.

  5. Ensure the success of the code. Verify that the code scans; test the code on a variety of devices or verify it with a professional-grade barcode scanner.

  6. Be descriptive and tell the user what to do. Incorporate a line or two with the code that explains what the code does, how to scan it, and how to download a reader.

  7. Including a Short Message Service (SMS) can ensure the user will make it to the destination if he or she can't scan the code.

Chris Lehan is director of product development for Impressions Inc. Contact him at chrisl@i-i.com. Impressions Inc. (St. Paul, MN) is a privately held, family owned printing and packaging company specializing in production, printing and packaging for the pharmaceutical, medical device, personal care, software, specialty food and private label industries. See www.i-i.com.

Offline vs. online

Offline codes do not require an Internet connection; they are resolved directly on the mobile phone because the data is retrieved from the code itself.

Online codes require an Internet connection or phone service and point to a URL, which triggers an interaction with the server. When a code is used as a pointer, information can be updated at the URL — all of the 2-D codes that have been published will remain up-to-date. The code itself never changes, as it only contains a fixed-size web address. An online code used as a pointer to a website is much cleaner and more efficient than an offline code that encodes all of the information directly. Many mobile readers have difficulty with a code greater than 33 × 33 mm (about 50 to 100 characters).

Offline codes are best used for small amounts of text such as a phone number or brief contact details.

Direct vs. indirect

Direct codes typically are larger than indirect codes because they contain the full URL of the content associated with the code. After scanning, a direct code is decoded by software on the mobile device, which sends the extracted URL to the mobile device browser as if it had been keyed in:

Scan code > decode > arrive at final URL.

Indirect codes, by contrast, store an index to a database containing information about the code. Users can track metrics such as the scan frequency and demographics. Like direct codes, software running on the mobile device decodes the code. But here the software creates a URL to a web address specified in the application containing the index and passes it on to the final destination:

Scan code > decode > intermediate URL > reference index > arrive at final URL.