Thursday, February 18, 2010

QR Codes, Part 1: What are they? How do they work?

by Greg Shine, guest blogger

Over the past few months there's been a lot of interest in our use of QR Codes at Fort Vancouver NHS, so the following four posts comprise a quick primer on 1) what they are & how they work, 2) what's new about them, 3) how to make them, and 4) how they can be of use to historic site interpretation (and how we're using them). They are also posted over at my blog, too. Please share your thoughts; I know that we're only hitting the tip of the iceberg!

What are QR Codes? How do they work?

Generally speaking, QR (Quick Response) codes are a type of bar code, similar to those you find on products at your neighborhood grocery store. As our archaeologist Dr. Bob Cromwell (a railroad enthusiast) is quick to point out, one of the first uses of bar code technology was to help track the nation’s myriad railroad cars in the mid-nineteenth century. Since then, the technology has been widely adopted (and adapted) for other retail and inventory uses. Most recently, it is becoming more consumer driven…and directed.

There are many places that you can learn about the specific bar code symbology, and I won’t attempt to go into detail here, but bar codes embed data in a way that can be easily and quickly read by another device. The most common place that most folks encounter bar codes is at the grocery store, where scanners can “read” a product’s UPC (Universal Product Code). At the checkout, this technology allows the clerk (and us) to quickly identify the product and its price, but behind the scenes it also tracks the item from production to purchase, links to the product’s inventory, and provides other important metrics such as what it was purchased with, when it was purchased, and often where in the store it was purchased. This provides the grocery with valuable information about consumer choice patterns. The data embedded can vary greatly, too, and is not limited to what it is and when/where it was produced.

In national parks today, bar code technology is used in many ways. In the NPS’ Pacific West Region (56 national park units in California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and the islands of the outer Pacific) all sensitive equipment is given a bar code sticker for help in scheduling repair and replacement. Many park libraries also use the technology for controlling the checkout of books, similar to the way that many public libraries do. In some parks, equipment for seasonal firefighters is tracked through bar coding. Many park publications sport a bar code on their derrieres, and most of our park partners and cooperating associations use the technology in ways very similar to our local grocery stores.

At Fort Vancouver, we're also using bar code technology (in the form of QR Codes like the image above) as one, small tool to enhance and compliment our historic site interpretation. We have a fantastic crew of staff and volunteers, but even their herculean efforts don't allow us to have round-the-clock personal interpretation in every building and site in the park. Plus, we know that that is not every visitor's desire. With QR Codes, we can connect visitors directly to content via the internet by building a specific URL directly into a QR Code. By using one of a variety of free (and paid) applications on a smartphone or other web-enabled portable device, visitors can simply point their device's camera at the strange assemblage of black and white squares and instantly access web content we've specifically chosen for that location. Pretty cool, eh?

I don't want to get too far ahead of myself here (there are three more posts on the topic yet to come) but I am curious about the experience of readers of Northwest History. Have you found bar code technology in unexpected places? In places relating to Northwest history? If so, where? What impressions do you have?

1 comment:

Anne said...

In public history - no experience.

In prior work, I've used bar codes to identify inventory for rental equipment checkout (tricky - think attaching a barcode label to a nylon tent or snowshoes), for custom logo clothing sold at the Unviersity bookstore, and entered gazillion UPC codes into a software application for dining services and convenience store products so they could be scanned with infrared and an auto-cashier event created. My son works for UPS (the Brown Shorts) and they live and die by the barcode.