Can a 'URL Killer' Save Our Text-Weary Thumbs?

After Long Gestation, QR Codes in U.S. Are Finally Starting to Catch On

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Garrick Schmitt
Garrick Schmitt
As anyone who has ever struggled to manually input a URL into a mobile phone browser will tell you, there are relatively few joys to be had in the physical act of "texting."

Sure Apple, Palm, Google and BlackBerry have made great strides in providing elegant, easier-to-use keypads on their latest mobile devices. But there more than 4.1 billion mobile devices in the world today and most of them are your standard, garden-variety handset with a small screens and numeric keypads.

Inputting long lines of text on such devices, even with normal-size fingers, is a clumsy experience at best that can leave even the deftest "text-er" feeling ham-handed. This poses a huge barrier to mobile internet service adoption and, of course, marketing.

Surprising, then, that the QR code -- sometimes dubbed the URL killer -- has yet to catch-on outside of Asia. Until now that is. A flurry of new QR code activity from cultural tastemakers and media platforms alike may finally push the barcode into the mainstream.

For those unfamiliar, QR codes are 2D bar codes that contain small bits of data, such as URL strings, phone numbers and e-mail addresses. To read the QR code, a user simply launches a "reader" on their mobile device and takes a snapshot of the image. The software will then trigger the appropriate response, which can include launching a URL in the phone's browser to streaming a video or MP3.

Long popular in Japan, where QR codes are used on everything from bananas to advertising to tombstones, the following developments may prove the tipping point for the technology worldwide:

"9": QR codes will play heavily into this fall's promotion of the Tim Burton-produced film "9." Consumers who have QR readers on their mobile devices will be able to scan the code for exclusive clips from the movie and commentary from the director. Focus Features debuted the campaign this past weekend at ComicCon in San Diego.

Green Day QR code

Green Day: For the band's new album, "21st Century Breakdown," Green Day employed QR codes in magazine ads, posters, stickers and more. The QR code directs users to a special mobile site that enables the downloading of exclusive images and videos. The group partnered with Delivr to provide the content and media.

YouTube: The largest video platform in the world began to embrace QR codes this year. If you access the mobile YouTube site through an iPhone or Android device, you will now have the option to generate a QR code that embeds a link to the video.

Firefox: Similarly, Mozilla's recently began to offer an add-on for its Firefox browser called Mobile Barcoder. The extension allows Firefox users to users to simply generate a 2D QR code of either a URL or selection of text for easy transfer to a mobile device.

Luis Vuitton and Takashi Murakami, Marc Jacobs: Japan still sets the bar for radical evolutions of the QR code. Tokyo-based creative agency SET is bringing a design sensibility to something that -- for the moment -- has been a geeky-aesthetic. The agency brought together Louis Vuitton and Takashi Murakami for a unique spin on the QR codes. And for Marc Jacobs, the QR code gets a decidedly artful hand-drawn rendering.

Of course there have been some early, but decidedly mixed, experiments with QR codes outside of Japan. Most notably, Citysearch ran a pilot program in San Francisco last year allowing users to get restaurant reviews from stickers placed in the windows of participating establishments. And advertisers like Pepsi, Siemens and Volvo have all run QR campaigns in the past few months.

But it's only more recently, with the rise of the iPhone and Google's Android, that QR codes are starting to see a rise in Europe and the U.S. Both of those devices, with simple-to-install QR apps, allow users to bypass handset/carrier relationships that previously stalled adoption, to download and use the readers of their choice.

And as consumers get more familiar with scanning the codes, the future for QR codes will only get brighter. PSFK recently reported that scientists in Australia have developed a color barcode called Mobile Multi-Colour Composite 2D-Barcode that can hold more complex data and entire images and videos, sans URL. Even better, the new codes will work with a mobile device whether or not an Internet connection is actually available -- which means nearly instant, immersive experiences.

Given that, it's not hard to imagine a not-too-distant future where QR codes will become the primary bridge connecting real and virtual worlds.

Imagine a QR code becoming the call-to-action on every print ad or billboard. We'll watch movie trailers while waiting for the bus and stream hit singles upon passing by a poster. Beyond that, QR codes will become affixed to every conceivable product in a retail environment. Imagine using QR codes on your next trip to the grocery store to view recipes, learn about the farmer who grew your lettuce and even snag a coupon -- it's already happening in Japan, now its time for the rest of the world to catch-up.

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Garrick Schmitt is group VP of experience planning at Razorfish and the agency's global lead for user experience. He publishes FEED, Razorfish's annual consumer experience report, and writes and edits the Razorfish Digital Design Blog. In his spare time he flails about on Twitter @gschmitt. Audi and Levi's are Razorfish clients.

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