Having a Party on the QR

Walking down Brick Lane in London over the weekend, I saw this poster:

Between the Cracks party poster

It’s advertising a “secret” party somewhere in the area. The location is given in a QR barcode, which is the seemingly random mosaic that covers most of the poster. As the instructions suggest, it’s not meant to be read by eye, but with a mobile phone — just point your mobile at the poster and off you go.

Well, not exactly. First of all, you have to have the right phone. In Japan, the ability to read QR codes has been a standard feature on mobile phones for some time. But in Europe, few devices support the technology. For best results, it needs a camera that can focus on close objects and capture detail well. Nokia’s barcode reader only works on its smartphones with 3.2-megapixel or better cameras. That’s fewer than 10 phones in Nokia’s total range of about 50.

If you don’t have one of these phones, you can download a Java-based reader. However, some of them, such as MobileTag, only interpret Semacodes, a different type of barcode that’s incompatible with QR codes. UPC’s Upcode application reads both types of barcode, but only on Symbian phones. Kaywa’s QR reader can only be downloaded after you’ve registered on the company’s Web site. I’ve found most of these readers give patchy results, especially when used with low-resolution cameras.

I used my Nokia N95 to try reading the code on the Brick Lane poster, but gave up after a few minutes. The combination of bright sunshine, a slightly skewed poster and an overly complicated barcode was too much for the phone. In the end, I could only decipher the code by photographing it, enhancing it on a computer and rereading it. By which time the party was long over.

The barcode on the poster is much more complicated than it needs to be. Once decoded, it reveals 240 characters of text, most of which could be put on a Web page and accessed by following a link embedded in the barcode. The whole point of QR codes and Semacodes is to give quick access to information. Any phone with a barcode reader is likely to also have a Web browser and Internet access, so why the party organisers didn’t just use the barcode to point people to a Web site is beyond me.

Mobile barcodes are potentially very useful. At CCS Insight, we’ve put them on the back of our business cards. But for QR codes and Semacodes to become widespread in Europe, they have to offer an advantage over traditional methods of conveying information. If they don’t, I think they’ll remain geeky toys.