All of a sudden, they seem to be everywhere -- those little black blotches of ink called QR (for Quick Response) codes, which look like a cross between a Rorschach inkblot and a supermarket bar code, and which are meant to be read by cell phones. But many Americans still don't know what they're for -- or why they matter.
To find out, we asked Hamilton Chan, founder of Los Angeles-based Paperlink, a marketing-technology company that helps clients deploy QR codes in places from nightclubs to manufacturers. He took it easy on us, and explained why QR codes will become a bigger part of our lives. He also passed along a study from Mobio Identity Services that said use of QR codes has risen 45-fold in the last year as more companies began using them in ad campaigns.
Q:What is a QR code and why does it matter?
A: They're codes that can be read very quickly using smartphones. It can embed a Web address and take people to a Web site to get more information or do a transaction. They're going to be the new way to access the Internet. My overarching thesis is that before if you wanted information, you would go to a computer, go to Google and search. Now you can get on-the-go hyperlinks, and hyperlinks are moving from computers into the rest of the world.
Q: So a QR code is the equivalent of a hyperlink?
A: Yes. So say you're in a hotel and you see an armchair that's perfect for your living room. If it's got a QR code on a tag, you can order it, or see price comparisons or consumer reviews, all without foundering around on the Internet.
Q: How widespread are they, and how fast will they spread?
A: There was a study showing they are up more than 4,000 percent in the last year. Anecdotally, I've definitely noticed them popping up in malls, and in magazine ads. A QR code makes a magazine ad into an Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole through which a consumer can dive for more information. A two-second magazine ad turns into a five minute brand-immersion experience. That's very valuable to advertisers. And a consumer might be able to use it to access an otherwise-unavailable coupon code.
Q: Can you give me examples of what companies do with them?
We are working with one of the world's largest concert promoters. They're putting our codes in their night clubs, where people can scan it (to get a list of upcoming shows). People can scan it with their phone and buy tickets for the next show. It's basically the poster (that nightclubs often use to promote coming attractions) but it also becomes its own digital store and cashier.
Q: What happens next?
A: People will soon recognize that the code is an Internet hyperlink. And that will be a call to action.
A restaurant might put them on its menu and you could see pictures of each dish. Or the restaurant might include a special offer: Give us your e-mail address and we'll give you a discount on tonight's meal.
Q: What's the bottom line?
A: QR codes will be ubiquitous in five years, and the phone will be like a magic wand -- wave it and get things. It will be your access to the Internet wherever you go. And it will be the most efficient way to get any information anywhere.
By Tim Mullaney, for USA TODAY