March 1, 2011 – Atlanta, GA USA – The follow QR Code 101 Two Dimensional (2D) Quick Response (QR) scan code article was first published by American Printer (February 2011 • Pages 20-25). This excerpt is reprinted by permission of the author.
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. It is now a published ISO standard that any company may use to encode text data, including URLs, into a scannable image. (See American Printer “Quick Response,” July 2010.)
QR Codes—as well as ScanLife EZcode, Microsoft Tag and the other 50 or so types of 2D 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.” 2D 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 2D 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 2D 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 2D codes and many yet to be invented. Careful thought and execution is the key to success when incorporating 2D 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 professionalgrade 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 2D 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 2D 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.
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 2D 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. 2D 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.
Arguably, all 2D 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 “2D code” encompasses all varieties of this technology.
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 x 26 mm (1 in. sq.).
But to ensure the broadest reading success rate across a wide variety of phones, the code should be 32 x 32 mm (1.25 x 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.
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 (see American Printer magazine (2/11), page 22 for QR code examples described here). 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 2D code [see American Printer magazine (2/11), page 22 for QR code examples described here] is significantly simpler. When a user scans the 2D 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.
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 2D 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 x 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 Versus 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.
That’s GREAT! Editor’s Note: Additional QR code content (including examples) is available from American Printer magazine (February 2011 • Pages 20-25) This additional content includes: Cracking the Code: A Cheat Sheet for Would-Be Code Warriors; How it Works; Case Study: QR Codes Offer Ohio Paper Growth Potential; QR Codes, AR & Mobile Payments and QR code examples.
That’s GREAT! blog post by Guest Columnist: Chris Lehan is director of product development for Impressions Inc. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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*Though Quick Response (QR) brand scan codes are a registered trademark of Toyota subsidiary Denso-Wave, Quick Response Code (QR) are commonly – and incorrectly – used generically to refer to all Two Dimensional (2D) mobile barcodes: including ScanLife EZcode brand scan codes; Microsoft Tag codes; datamatrix codes; and still other scan codes that are scanned or photographed on a smartphone such as an iPhone 4. Saying Quick Response code or QR code is like saying that you TIVOed the TV show when you actually used the Comcast brand digital video recorder to record the TV show.
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