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Cracking the (bar) codes

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More and more Winnipeg companies are starting to play with 2-D bar codes that look more like modern art: squiggly shapes, lines and dots all crammed into a square.

But marketing experts warn that used without a purpose, QR codes, as they’re called, are nothing but pretty gimmicks — and new technology is already out that could make them obsolete before they even catch on.

QR codes, which are "scanned" when a smartphone photographs them, are basically shortcuts — QR stands for quick response. When a phone snaps its picture, the code automatically directs the phone to a website or video, or downloads an mp3. It dials a phone number or adds a new contact to its address book. QR codes do everything a smartphone can do already — but in the click of a camera shutter.

Winnipeg men might have seen one of the new local QR ads while in front of a urinal at a bar or restaurant downtown. At eye level, a 1950s-style pin-up girl, with big hair and a skimpy dress, smiles coyly under the slogan, "Put your phone where my mouth is." A little QR code covers the woman’s lips.

When guys scan the code, it will make their phone open a 30-second video consisting solely of the woman’s bright red lips talking flirtatiously about the appeal of men with hair.

It’s an ad for Sheps Hair Transplant Clinic.

Since the ads launched a month ago, about 300 people have scanned the code.

Other Winnipeg companies and organizations that have experimented with QR codes have had scan numbers in the hundreds or low thousands.

Experts agree that for QR codes to go mainstream, they have to solve problems — not just look pretty.

Erica Glasier, a Winnipeg marketer who blogs about digital media, says the QR codes used by some companies seem like a "tactic in search of a strategy."

She condemns an MTS print ad whose QR code simply sends the viewer to another static ad. She says it’s barely interesting, not useful, and doesn’t add any incentive to the potential customer.

Glasier favours QR codes for extremely simple purposes: a band poster that links to an mp3 of the band’s music or Best Buy’s link to reviews of its electronics products right next to the products on store shelves.

The rise of QR codes has been delayed by the percentage of Canadians who own smartphones — about 30 per cent of us have them now, according to a May Ipsos Inter@ctive Reid report.

And while the codes have become quite popular in national ad campaigns, things can take longer to catch on here.

"Winnipeg does not have the population, head offices, marketing budgets or the relevance to integrate the 2-D codes in many ways," says Kyle Romaniuk, of Winnipeg-based Cocoon Branding.

Meanwhile, more powerful technology threatens to overtake QR codes already.

Near Field Communications (NFC) uses a chip activated simply by proximity to interact with a smartphone — you just swipe your phone within 20 cm of the chip and information gets exchanged.

NFC does everything QR can do, and more: it can unlock a door or make a secure payment. Mastercard’s popular PayPass system uses NFC and so will smartphone-based Google Wallet when it launches in the near future. Mastercard found customers spend between 28 and 42 per cent more using PayPass, compared to using a swipe-based credit card.

And Google seems to have left QR behind. It previously embraced the technology by giving every Google Place its own printable code to direct visitors in the real world back to the Places website, but it quietly removed the codes in March.

And yet, to use NFC, you have to bring your phone right up to the chip, whereas you can scan a QR code from blocks away if it’s big enough. And while QR codes cost next to nothing to print, each NFC chip costs anywhere between seven cents and 25 dollars, according to the RFID Journal.

So the two technologies could co-exist.

As Glasier says, when credit cards came along, people kept on using cash.

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