More Fun With QR Codes

€5, though you'd hardly know it

I’ve been looking out for people using these things in unexpected ways – and finding surprisingly few. There’s this fairly effective decorative example. Or this portrait made up of thousands, each of which is a link to a video. Or the guy who proposed via code – God would he have looked like a loser if she hadn’t accepted. But I think the prize goes to the Netherlands, which to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its royal mint is circulating €5 and €10 coins with codes on them that link to a *surprise*.

I’ll save you the trouble of pointing a phone at the screen (yes, that works), it goes here. Though to be honest, the surprise isn’t all that.

But the coins are kind of funky, even if they’re not really Euros in that they aren’t legal tender outside the Netherlands. (Perhaps just as well. How would you react to finding that weirdly realistic image of Queen Beatrix in your change?) And even at home, the €10 ones won’t be seeing a lot of circulation. Made of gold, they’re worth more than their face value.

Naturally there was a brief insta-panic about having ‘tracking codes’ on money that might secretly be scanned by vending machines, etc. But as every coin has the same code, all it actually tells you is that €5 has been spent. Which, let’s face it, you probably knew already. So it’s a rather pointless and gimmicky application of the technology really. Now if all the coins had a different one you could have some fun. Prizes maybe. Or say one in ten thousand links to a really fierce porn site.

Just one thing still bothers me. If the Dutch Royal Mint is only a hundred years old, what the hell did they use for money before?

Click On My Face

This is a artistic steganography try. It talks...
There could be a link encoded in this image. There isn't, but there could be.

Yesterday I was discussing QR codes, and the possibility of turning the actual text in magazines or on posters into links. I see no reason why in the very near future you couldn’t go to a Web page, video or other online resource simply by pointing a phone at a printed URL. These methods could help revive the flagging newspaper and magazine industries, by introducing a much greater integration between the printed page and the Internet. For example you could easily share a magazine article with Facebook friends.

An idea that I can see supplanting even this though is a form of steganography – that is, encoding links and other data into pictures, in such a way that they can be read by machine without being visible to humans. Actually this is already used for anti-forgery systems; Adobe Photoshop for example will refuse to handle scans of Euro notes because it recognizes a pattern hidden in the design. The same method could turn photographs into clickable links when you look at them through your phone.

And print designers will absolutely love this. Not only do they not require blocky codes or funny fonts, they can make tired elements like www and .com finally vanish from their pages. So these I think will be with us pretty soon. Until they’re eventually replaced by RFID ink.

Ink With Links

A Japanese advertising poster containing QR codes
Adverts with links let you buy on the spot.

When I posted yesterday about QR codes, those little symbols used to put Web links on real-world objects, reader Azijn made this thought-provoking comment:

I find QR codes a bit weird. Why not have an app that can simply recognize a certain default font in which advertisers will agree to publish their URLs? Humans and phones alike can recognize that!

Indeed, I can find no such app. How come? Azijn’s idea would surely work.

But then you have to remember that most design actually happens by accident. QR codes are prevalent for this purpose mainly because they’ve been around long enough to catch on. They were invented by Toyota for labelling components and it was in Japan that they were first used on phones. But that doesn’t mean of course that they’re the best solution.

QR codes did have a couple of advantages. They were designed expressly to be read by machine and have built-in error correction, so they were easier for simple devices to process. But now that phones are very powerful computers they should have little trouble handling text recognition – I doubt if there’s even any need for special fonts¹.

I can think of one way to speed things up though: A typographical convention to indicate where a website address begins and ends, such as putting it between two easily recognised symbols, so that the phone doesn’t need to scan whole pages. Example:


Any such text will be highlighted on your phone’s screen, showing you that it’s clickable.

Can I get a patent on that?

  1. There have been fonts designed to be easily read by machine since at least the 60s, for example the hardcore OCR-A, the more friendly OCR-B, or the space-age classic Westminster – which I had always thought belonged to NASA or IBM or some such but turns out to have been created by a British bank. These days though Optical Character Recognition software is so good that they are no longer really necessary, though obviously plainer, less ornate fonts are likely to get better results.

QR Code

Go On, Point Your Phone At It

See that? That’s a QR code. You find these things everywhere now; in papers and magazines, on business cards and posters. If you’ve been wondering what the hell’s going on, they’re a similar idea to barcodes. They can contain hidden messages, contact details, dirty limericks – best of all, links to websites.

Scan one with your phone’s camera, and its browser will open the page. (You’ll find a free QR reader for most recent phones here.) The one shown is for this very blog. Now real-world objects like printed pages, even buildings, can have clickable links.

But why stop there? I’m growing a vast privet hedge maze in the shape of this code. Soon you’ll be able to come here by clicking on satellite photographs.