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Raising the Bar — Code

So you are thumbing through a magazine and stumble upon an ad that includes a postage-stamp sized graphic with a black & white interlaced pattern. What’s this?

You wonder if it is a close-up view of some image, so magnified that only a few square pixels are in view. Actually, the graphic is an image of data. It is simply a two-dimensional barcode, just waiting to be accessed — using your cell phone!

You are already familiar with standard one-dimensional barcodes. These are printed on nearly every product you buy, scanned by electronic devices, carrying product details, pricing and other data. But here comes another level of information in the form of a 2-D barcode. . Your smartphone becomes a hand-held scanner that captures the code. The data goes beyond facts and figures, offering more of a visual experience.

What was once merely in print is now suddenly performed. The 2-D barcode connects you to an interactive world that displays, demonstrates, or discusses details that would otherwise have been left to your imagination.

For example, you’re leafing through the Lifestyle section of your Sunday paper and you notice a 2-D barcode printed in the corner of an ad for a new movie. You grab your cell phone, take a picture of the barcode graphic and within seconds you’re watching the video trailer. There is also a “now playing” menu of local theatres, with the option of reserving some seats for the next performance, and, for just accessing the barcode, a discount coupon is waiting for you to downloaded to your phone, so you can see the movie at half-price. You went from sipping coffee to smelling popcorn in about two minutes! 

Zurich HD Main StationDuring my recent trip to Zurich, Switzerland, I encountered a massive 2-D barcode display just as I was exiting the main train station in downtown Zurich.

The trend is growing as these huge posters are popping up everywhere. To the less technically saavy they seem rather odd — that is — until more and more people catch on and start scanning these codes to see what’s behind them!

Of course the possibilities are endless. Links to active content can be placed on business cards, brochures, packaging, store windows, and basically any place you can print a barcode for the purpose of providing more information. A Google search for “2-D barcode” will yield many sources of information, including blogs, such as Shel Holtz’s article, as well as in discussion forums that show the many types and uses of 2-D barcodes. 

2-Pieces to the 2-D Puzzle

But how does it all work? You need two things: a way to create the barcode and a way to interpret it. My Blackberry Curve does include the “Blackberry Messenger” application, which has an automatic feature for scanning (reading) group bar codes, but I was also seeking a way to create my own codes, as well. Fortunately, there are a number of companies who provide applications that do both the creating and the reading. ScanLife is a mobile application that is already pre-installed on newer cell phones, especially those from Sprint or Verizon, but can easily be downloaded to nearly any smartphone in a few minutes. I did not have that particular application on my Blackberry Curve, but I searched the available apps and simply downloaded it to my phone in a few minutes.

Between Blackberry Messenger and ScanLife, I had multiple ways to scan a barcode. I just needed a barcode to scan. I might have tried to find a print ad with one of the codes — but I decided to make my own code, just to see how it all worked. I used my PC to navigate to the ScanLife website and I created an account (I thought using my PC keyboard for this activity would be easier than typing all this from my phone).

I had two setup choices: a personal account or a business account. The big difference is that the business account allows you to print reports to see how many times your barcodes have been accessed, when, by whom — basically the type of demographic data that you may want to keep track of from a marketing perspective. 

Either type of account allows you to create a few different kinds of barcodes, for different purposes, such as a contact code or even a menu (which can contain several links). So, using the ScanLife website, I created a code that links to one of my YouTube videos about presentation skills. The barcode is shown above, and if you have a 2-D barcode scanning application on your phone; or, if you download an app such a ScanLife, you can take a picture of the above barcode and the application will link you directly to my video clip.

Basically, you only need the application on your phone to read any 2-D barcode.  But if you want to create your own code, you need to use a program (barcode generator), such as ScanLife, Kaywa, RACO, and others.

In many cases these codes are free to create and use personally, but once you begin to distribute the code on a larger scale, some organizations that provide the free code-generators will ask for a fee based on the number of impressions or some flat-rate. For example, ScanLife charges $125 per year for a barcode placed on a business card. But for a code used in a print ad, the fees could range from $300 to $50,000 depending on the circulation, duration, tracking and reporting details.

A Code for All Reasons

Print advertising appears to be the most common place for a 2-D barcode because of the added utility of using a cell phone to access dynamic content while reading. But the use is not limited to advertising. For instance, barcodes can be strategically placed in handout documents which support a presentation to link the reader to a copy of the electronic presentation, or directly to multimedia content that can make the handout have greater utility, such as animation, audio or video. 

Yet, print is not the end point. It is not uncommon to see a 2-D barcode appear on a website, where, in addition to a direct link on the page, a person can also capture the related barcode into their phone, rather than type what could be a lengthy hyperlink, with many letters and symbols.

You will begin to see these barcodes on store windows or restaurant menu displays, for passers-by who may desire a video tour of the location even though the place is closed at the moment.

The good news is that the links you setup with a particular barcode can be changed, and you can make a new code to replace the old one whenever you want. Or, if you have the ability to change the target information, that is, the data shown at location that the barcode points to — then you only need one code. Printed pieces with existing barcodes do not have to become obsolete as linked content changes, as long as the web address stays the same.

For example, suppose you create a 2-D barcode of your contact information which points to a networking web page (such as Linked-In, or Facebook, Ryze, etc.) and then you print that code onto a business card. Because you can dynamically change the web page of your contact information, the barcode will always point to that page and you won’t have to print new business cards as you update your career highlights, until your job title or company changes.

I can envision a job seeker creating a resume with an embedded 2-D barcode that allows a potential employer to link to a YouTube video where the candidate makes a case for being the right person to hire. Maybe I should start a service where I help build 2-minute, high-impact interview videos, linked to a 2-D barcode, for people who want to land that high-profile position! I can call it the “See Me Sell Me Service” or perhaps “ExecuView” or maybe “MyQualiCode”… hmmm…

The bottom line is that the 2-D barcode is finding its way into the static print media as a way of expanding our experience using smartphone technology. With devices at our fingertips that let us explore a more visual world, it won’t be long before 2-D barcodes begin to appear in places we never expected, from tee-shirts to tattoos. Don’t be surprised one day if you strike up a conversation using the phrase “So, tell me about yourself”; and, with a casual wink, a painted lid displays a 2-D barcode. This will give a whole new meaning to term “eye contact”.

Have your phone ready!

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