Saturday, February 20, 2010

QR Codes, Part 4: How can we use them in public history?

by Greg Shine, guest blogger

How can we use QR Codes in public history and historic site interpretation?

I have to give credit to one of my colleagues, Prof. Brett Oppegaard of Washington State University-Vancouver, for planting the seed for Fort Vancouver’s foray into QR Codes. We’re working together on an optimistic AR (augmented reality) project for mobile storytelling in the Village of Fort Vancouver, and Brett suggested some beta testing via QR codes. Since then, I’ve tested them on waysides, in buildings, and at special events. Although still in its infancy at Fort Vancouver, I’ve noticed some positives and negatives to using this technology.

Thus far, I think the benefits of using QR codes outweigh the challenges. Here are a few benefits:

Cost. As described above, the major costs associated with QR coding seem to lie in content development, not technical development. Staff can focus on crafting quality content rather than coding. Also, QR codes can be printed from a desktop to paper or stickers for pennies on the dollar. At our most recent Christmas at Fort Vancouver special event, I created ten QR Codes, printed them out on the staff printer, cut them out, and then taped them at various places at the fort. The majority of my time was spent on content -- pulling interesting factoids together that linked to the event and then creating a specific web page for each. That’s it.

Timeliness. Once a QR code is established (let’s say it links to a specific park web page), you only need update the webpage it links to, not the QR code itself. Here’s an example: The ten QR codes that I put up linked to pages with interpretive elements that were specific to the park’s Christmas event. Rather than take those codes down, I can simply change the content of those pages to feature something else, like an object found there archaeologically or a link to a specific quote or video of a ranger talk. This also makes QR codes great for information, too. A code on a visitor center door could link to different information daily to reflect park specific conditions, featured programs, etc., by updating the URL to which it links.

Supplemental interpretation & provocation
. These codes do not – and are not intended to – replace person-to-person interpretation. However, they are a wonderful resource for providing supplemental interpretation or a primary option to the folks who 1) might like to tour a site and learn at their own pace, or 2) can’t make a scheduled program. They are also a wonderful tool for provoking visitors into learning more about a site; we call this incremental hooking for interpretation. If a goal in interpretation is to provoke and help visitors connect to their own understanding of a site, then QR codes are a small but mighty tool on our workbench. At Fort Vancouver, we can tell folks that a certain building is reconstructed from the archaeological and historical record, but why not show them, too? A QR code can link to historic photos, historic documents, flash videos, text; even a 3D image of an artifact found right there onsite.

Demonstrating that we get it. By using QR codes and other developments in technology, we’re tapping into a growing audience that has long looked at government employees and programs as behind the curve. This is particularly evident here in Portland; our park is unique in that it sits in the middle of the Silicon Forest, one of the nation’s most tech-savvy metro areas, especially when it comes to smart phone applications. We feel that we really don’t have a choice but get it. One of NPS Interpretation maven David Larsen’s mantras is also ours: be relevant or be a relic. We feel that technology is one pathway toward relevancy.

Of course, there are also many challenges. Here are a few I’ve identified thus far:

Accessibility – in the broadest sense of the word. It is impossible for most park visitors to access QR codes without a smartphone. While they are continuing to drop in price, they are not cheap. In addition to smart phone purchase, you’ll also need a data plan and some type of application to read the codes. This can add up quickly. Please note, though, that mere possession of a smart phone does not ensure access to QR Codes. We’re lucky enough at Fort Vancouver to be a national park in an urban center; the majority of parks are not, and basic cell coverage – let
alone 3G or 4G coverage – is neither possible nor probable. Also, in light of the NPS’ amazing work in making the parks more relevant to a broader, more ethnically, culturally, and economically diverse audience, this technology has the potential to exclude and/or alienate our prime constituents.

Potential for overreliance.
Historic site managers may be blown away by QR code technology and may see opportunities for cost savings during these times of tight budgets, but I urge restraint. Our studies show what we’ve thought all along: that it isn’t an adequate replacement for other interpretive services. Visitors queried by Prof. Oppegaard, for example, still favor personal contact with park staff.

What other benefits and challenges do you see?


Shaun Reeser said...

This use of QR codes would certainly open up new avenues of learning, including showing the tech-savvy that you "get it." As you have pointed out, however, this could be a route to exclusivity, one that lower income people cannot necessarily afford, or that others may choose not to pay for. (I am referring to smart phones in general, not necessarily reader apps, especially free ones.)
Does Ft. Vancouver provide information to visitors about using these QR codes? I have seen them on UPS shipping labels, but would not have guessed their purpose at an historical park. I would have just thought of them as inventory labels. Also, are there plans to make this supplemental information available to those who do not have smartphones?
This is an interesting set of posts, and provides good ideas for other public history venues. Thanks!

Anne said...

How exactly does this work? Well, I went to our best online training source,, and watched the magic happen. The phone didn't look like a smartphone so I played for 30 minutes on my Verizon toss-in-the-pocket model. I ended up at a site, which listed readers and phones. No luck for my model. Guess I'll have to amp up the technology.

What's so cool about this, is that the savvy user could not only post their car-for-sale on Craig's list, they could also put a QR code in the back window and the 10 people in Spokane who know about QR codes would maybe 1) see the code and 2) want to buy a car. But you get my point.

john said...
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john said...

It is definitely an interesting new direction for the presentation of a historic narrative. Although I am curious about the reliability of this technology.
Does the use of the QR code to link to a website in any way slow down the time it takes to connect to a website especially if a lot of people are using the same code at once?
Also along with people on a tight budget being less likely to own a smart-phone there are also people like me who while being very interested in bringing new technology into the field of history have always found surfing the web with anything smaller then a laptop to be too much of a headache and therefore do not have a smart-phone.

mikepk said...

Ive seen this requirement for applications and smart phones as a major barrier to the adoption of QR codes. I've been trying out a solution that uses camera phones + email to decode them (to keep there from being a barrier to decode) at It only does codes generated on the site (for now) but I'm looking for interest in general QR code decoding. It's my contention that making QR codes more accessible to more phones that have access to email and mms (and a camera, of course) would speed the adoption of them. Also I'm playing with the concept of using AR overlays on top of QR codes but that definitely *does* require a smartphone.

Dave said...

Certainly as phones improve more and more of them will have reader capability. As far as surfing goes on a phone my iPhone works great. I have a great interest in QR Codes as I have started a company that will allow you to manage your QR codes. You can not only change the website but also the site that the code points to. Scandots will also give you analytics.
I really think that the uses for this technology are too compelling to discount.

marry said...
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Anonymous said...

Just recently Long Beach, Washington has started using QR codes to link people to mobile-friendly webpages with information about the attractions and history. Link here:

Our company, QRable, created the QR codes and webpages for the City of Long Beach.

We included the URL underneath the QR codes on the walking tour plaques so people could surf to the page without a reader or take a pic and visit the site later when they had web access.

If you need a free QR code reader visit our website
There are links on the contacts tab to learn more and get in touch.

historywriter said...

Okay, I don't know what a QR code. Would like to know. Love Fort Vancouver. Great ESD workshops there.

Tech Tapas said...

I just saw your post and I wanted to show you my project I have up on kickstarter. I am working on a way to make qr codes a tool for everyone to use. Check it out: