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The QR and/or Code Conundrum

QR Codes are the cause of much debate / argument / kitten killing, both in and outside of Social Interpretation. But why do we need them? What are the different options? And if using QR, what can one do to make them as usable as possible?

Which would do you prefer?

Why this debate at all?

To put it simply, because we want to enable people to use objects (or anything physical) as keys into more information. This might be info about an object, a theme, or maybe a discussion or piece of media. To do this, we need some way to bridge the physical/digital divide.

So what’re our options?

Location + Direction (Indoor GPS / Wi-Fi Triangulation)

In an ideal world, I think, we would use extremely granular location + direction information. This would allow us to exactly pinpoint where a visitor is, and so what they’re in front of. But the technology for this isn’t mature enough to deploy, be sure of it’s reliability, or even afford. Damn.


Essentially the same technology (NFC is 2-way, as opposed to RFID which is just a code/reader relationship, like the Oyster Card or Wavepay), this provides short-range wireless interaction. It’s a bit like magic (I appologise for the following video).

It is, I think, Claire Ross’ new favourite technology. You’d just tap your phone to a label or object find out more about it / interact with associated media.

Sounds great. But as an emergent technology, NFC is in only a small fraction of phones. Using it now would exclude close to 100% of our current visitors. Which isn’t ideal. Blast!

Object Recognition

You point to an object and find out about it! Great! And it uses near-universal technology – phone cameras. Even more great!

But, we’ve actually tried object recognition with a technical partner in mid-2011. For 2D works it’s great, but it just isn’t robust enough on 3D objects, especially ones that are very similar. Without being able to differentiate objects, it doesn’t really help. Shucks.


Like your classic Audioguide. These are unobtrusive, cheap  and, unlike QR and NFC, can be used at quite a distance (which is a very real concern for a gallery with more than a million visitors). It also doesn’t rely on any technology other than that found in every smart-phone. But, if a user doesn’t already have the app they aren’t helpful – they’re kind of a cul-de-sac. You’d need to add a link/explanation at each point. Or maybe design in some really obvious pre-gallery intervention to get people to use them, which is a huge challenge. Getting there?


So now we’re at QR Codes. These work with pretty standard tech (cameras) and are fairly easy to use. Usefully, if someone without a specific app scans them they can direct them to web-pages. This could be a mobile site (in our case collections pages on IWM), or even a direct like to an app store. The technology to read them is well-developed and robust. So they don’t suffer from the cul-de-sac of Codes, the unreliability of object-recognition, or the lack of technical capabilities / handset installation currently facing NFC. Great!

It’s not all good though. QRs aren’t instantly recognised by all (or even a majority) of users yet. So there’s still quite an ignorance-block to using them. Poor user experience – for instance QRs in marketing leads to poor content – also means that some people to recognise them choose not to use them. Users need to get closer to them than a printed code, so the camera picks them up. And lastly, phone’s don’t currently come with QR readers in-built (a blind-spot that I just don’t understand).


There’s nothing here that’s knock-down fantastic. Each solution has pretty major flaws. But I think, given the above, that QR codes are the best-available option from a not-great set. So how can you use them in such a way as to maximise their efficacy? Here’s some stuff we’ll be trying:

  • Clear explanations / calls to action next to every QR code. Communicating what they have to offer the visitor
  • A dedicated app to facilitate use and ease friction (Seb Chan blogs about of this approach here)
  • Directing QR scans from generic apps to mobile-optimised pages on that link to the app and explain the code
  • Educating staff on their use

Many others have been doing this type of work as well. Hugh Wallace at NMS has a great post about their work, while Children’s Museum Indianapolis have posted their case study here. We’ll be adding our findings to this blog as we go.

A quick, useful(?) summary:

Solution Ubiquitous technology? Cheap? Reliable / mature? Works at a distance Seamless / Self-directing
Indoor location Kind of (GPS / WIFi) No No Yes Yes
RIFID No Yes Kind of No Yes
Object Recognition Yes (Camera) Yes No Kind of Yes
Codes Yes Yes Yes Yes No
QR Yes (Camera) Yes Yes Kind of Yes
I’m sure that I’ve probably forgotten loads of stuff in this. So feel free to debate / discuss / suggest edits and additions below!
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1 comment
  1. […] as to actually detract from the object or artwork you’re interested in. But the technology is slowly getting there. Until it does become less intrusive, however, I’d recommend taking a look at your local museums […]

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