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Quick-Response (QR) codes are an increasingly popular type of smart tag, which is a two-dimensional barcode that can hold text, etc. (Fun fact: Two-dimensional barcodes are also known as matrix barcodes, proving that attaching the word "matrix" to anything makes it sound cooler.) A two-dimensional barcode is a grid of black-and-white square dots, as opposed to a linear barcode, which is made of alternating black and white lines or, well, bars.
From Tombstones to Tattoos
While there are competing smart tag systems, QR codes are the most common because of the ease in creating them and the abundance of apps developed to scan and translate each QR code. One can find these codes affixed to nearly anything: on bus ads, t-shirts, movie tickets, tombstones(!), tattoos(!!), and crop circles.
The very ubiquity of QR codes has led some knowledgeable folk in the high-tech industry to develop a knee-jerk disdain to all things quick-response. These venerable commentators are not opposed to the QR codes, which are demonstrably useful technology themselves, but are rather irked by smart tags becoming misused and are merely complaining about them the way they would any other rash.
Make Your Own QR Code
There are several websites that will encode a piece of text (such as a URL) for free. Simply search for "QR Generator." After the QR code is generated and displayed prominently wherever your heart desires, it can be scanned by any cameraphone that has a QR code-reader app installed, which is almost all smart phones.
QR codes can be used on business cards to contain your contact information or to direct someone to a company website. Bands can put QR codes on flyers to link to their own music videos or to a ticket-purchasing site. Restaurants and stores use QR codes to give customers coupons.
If you are merely an everyday consumer faced with a never-ending wall of QR codes to scan, there are many possibilities. There are a rising number of virtual stores, starting in Korea but making their way around the world, where a storefront is simply just an image on a wall. The image of each product for sale is accompanied by a smart tag, which takes the shopper to a purchase landing page. The purchased items are then shipped to the user's home.
The Future of QR Codes
What about the future of QR codes, and smart tags in general? As the compression rate increases, and storage capacity increases, QR codes will be able to hold much more data. Right now, the latest version of QR codes can hold 1,852 characters, but it might not be long before an Internet connection may not even be necessary to download a webpage or a book onto your phone.
Libraries and QR Codes
Imagine a virtual library, a wall of pictures of book spines, each one containing the title and a QR code. A future library patron can walk by this paper-thin library, take a picture of the book spine, and have the book on their phone, tablet, or computer immediately. As the San Mateo County Library increases its collection of eBooks and as more people get smart phones, the virtual library gets closer to becoming a reality.
Josh Pearce, literally "Mobile Armored Riot Police," is a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Masamune Shirow.