See something, scan something: Bloomberg pushes ‘Q.R. codes’

Picasso as a Q.R. collage. (Photo via Design Notes (Michael Surtees).)
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Walk down Spring Street in Soho just across the Bowery, and hidden between fading Village Voice Siren Festival advertisements and cartoonish graffiti, you’ll find neon-blue posters printed with a square symbol that looks a bit like a Rorschach test or maybe an Atari videogame grid.

These symbols peek out from subway advertisements for the New York Public Library, the Flying Karamazov Brothers’ show at the Minetta Lane Theatre and JetBlue package deals.

On the broad side of a building at Wooster Street and Grand Street, on the same wall that once featured Banksy’s signature rat wearing an “I <3 NY” t-shirt, an image of Picasso’s face was comprised of hundreds of these symbols, including a giant one painted at eye-level. If you took out your phone and snapped a picture of the code with a special application, you would have been directed to a mobile site advertising the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ new show: “Picasso: Discover the Master.”

These square symbols are called Q.R. codes, otherwise known as “quick response” matrix barcodes, that can be scanned with iPhones, Blackberries, Androids or other smartphones. Increasingly widespread yet somehow unprominent, they sneak up on you the way those long, tangled URL's at the bottom of ads used to in the early- to mid-90s. (Why would I run back to my computer to look at more of that?) But they put the man on the street much more directly in touch with the web than any URL you used to have to commit to memory. These throws have power.

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The scanned code can direct browsers to a specific URL—the most popular function for marketers and small businesses who want to send customers recipes or sell them a ticket to a show. But it can also launch other actions on your phone: they can initiate a phone call, send a text message, fire off an email, open up a Google Map, or even download contact information into an address book.

Invented in Japan in 1994, Q.R. codes have been common and widely used in cities like Tokyo for nearly a decade. They are everywhere: featured on restaurant menus, mall stores, product packaging and even gravestones. A couple of years ago, in the media world, Q.R. codes were bandied about as another technology liferaft arriving to save print media by connecting the paper products to the Web. Now, with a print magazine in one hand and your phone in the other, a paper page can put you directly on the web, the thinking went.

With the city's Bloombergification, there's been a movement to put Q.R. codes to civic use: teaching people how the city works, and giving them point-of-contact access to city data and information that doesn't require you to remember a .gov address that you'll inevitably forget to visit when you're back at your desk.

Last week, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city would place Q.R. codes at construction sites throughout the city. Users can download an application on their phone (we recommend QR Reader for iPhone or QR Code Scanner Pro for BlackBerry). When you scan the code on a building permit, a mobile site will display details about approved work, the property’s owner and job applicants, related projects, and complaints and violations associated to the location. (You might be the first to find out that the McNally's or a new La Esquina outpost is opening in your neighborhood. It's The Plywood Report!) They will also be able to click a link to initiate a phone call to 311 and file a complaint.

On Feb. 22, Bloomberg demonstrated the technology on Broad Street in Lower Manhattan, hovering a cameraphone over the code on the side of a building. The Q.R. code squared in his screen, eventually. In about 20 seconds, which seemed longer in the freezing cold, the application took a shot of the code and then displayed the construction site’s mobile information on Bloomberg’s phone. Success, if a bit clunky.

"Once you get this to work in one way, there's an awful lot of things you can do. And we're committed to that," Bloomberg said, standing, inside now, at 55 Broad Street, in front of a giant screen that displayed the construction information display from the phone. "The more people that download Q.R. software on their smartphones, the better this will work.”

Most of his entourage, more than two dozen suits, were clicking on their phones during the press conference.

That's the upside; the downside is the same. As with all such technology, the smaller the number of people that actually adapt to the new software, the less fruitful Bloomberg's mission becomes.

And so the challenge for the city is the same as the challenge marketers and tech start-ups have been experimenting with the technology for years: getting New Yorkers to take a break from texting and emailing and websurfing on their phones to use them to interact with what's around them—see something, scan something.

Back in November we looked at Q.R. codes as one of several city-changing experiments bridging the In Real Life world with the On The Web world; since then the ecology of city-dwellers has started to catch up. Start-ups like Stickybits are handing out booklets of scannable barcodes that people can attach the city’s physical grid, and create Wikipedia-like mobile websites for everything from a piece of art to a corner table at their favorite restaurant.

The city has been experimenting in other, more granular ways to use Q.R. codes. They are already mounted on trash trucks and point users to a video about recycling. Staten Island Ferry riders can use a Q.R. code to watch a 26 minute about city attractions and activities while they sip a post-work beer.

In June, as part of Internet Week 2010, the city’s media department beamed giant Q.R. codes in Times Square for a campaign called “The City at Your Fingerprints.” Displayed in rotation on the Thomson Reuters Building at 3 Times Square, the Q.R. codes directed users to websites for the city’s 311 program, parks and the department of transportation. Eleven New York agencies participated in the “interactive billboard” project, with some offering a free ringtone or a chance to win tickets to a Times Square screening of the Tony Awards.

Bloomberg said his office is considering many other ways to use Q.R. codes around the city. The parks commissioner wants scannable codes so people can reserve playing times at tennis courts or ball fields. Restaurant letter grades might soon include a scannable code so diners can check out the Health Department’s inspection results and find violations. Rat “remnants” found in this Mexican joint’s kitchen? Let’s try the Italian place down the street instead.

Landmarks will eventually feature Q.R. codes, so tourists can find historical information and other resources.

They can even be useful in schools: placed outside buildings to show contact information, open hours, and historical references. Codes could be placed on classroom doors and students could use their phones to log their attendance. Teachers could include Q.R. codes on worksheets and printed packages and link students to other tutorials and extra information. Q.R. codes could be printed on tickets for school events, so parents dropping their kids off can easily queue up a Google Map directing them to the soccer field.

Q.R. codes are free to make (create your own here) and use, which is why they appeal to city agencies. They’re a low-risk investment.

But as with betting on any kind of new technology, Q.R. codes may become obselete before New Yorkers can catch on to them. Special tags already embedded in some phones can swap data, collect payments, or exchange information simply by being near another device or tag. The technology, already available in most BlackBerry and iPhone devices, allows users to simply swipe their phone near a tag, and a URL will automatically be delivered to their device or they can make a payment for a ticket—no scanning required.

The idea of paying for your subway fare by swiping your phone at the turnstile can't be far off—which seems like a more appealing use to the average New Yorker than looking up building permits at construction sites.

But at the Bloomberg press conference last week, administrators explained that the new Q.R. codes on construction sites are targeted toward the demanding, high-tech Type A-type.

“What we're doing is we’re putting it in the palm of their hand as they walk down the street,” buildings commissioner Robert LiMandri said at that Broad Street briefing. “They don't want to go back to their office or their home and figure it out. They want to know now."

Because if it's not now, they may not care enough to know at all.