2D Barcodes in the Economist

I started spotting 2D barcodes--matrixes of dots or lines--a few months ago, and thought that it might finally be time for these codes to start taking off in the US. In Japan, at least 50 million people (based on a recent study conducted there) use 2D barcodes regularly. Here's my article in the Economist about it. This is just about the favorite topic I've written on for them, although I have a piece on CAPTCHAs in a couple of weeks that was also good fun to research.

Why? Because these codes are a shortcut between the digital and physical world, or an interface from digital to digital. The code is a way to transfer a URL, some text, or a lookup code (which is resolved over the Internet) to something you're looking at.


A QR Code with the URL for this blog entry embedded.

It can be used for advertising where each code, because so much information can be encoded, could be unique by region, city, or even individual magazine or newspaper subscriber. Response tracking can be as granular as Internet advertising. But it also has a direct utility as a shortcut for Web pages: click a shot on your mobile phone of a Web page's barcode, and you can bookmark or visit the site. This is one of the top two uses of such codes in Japan, the study found. Because the codes are designed to be robust and work at various sizes, you can print them on T-shirts, tattoo them on your forehead (if lost, please call...), create art with them, put them on billboards, add them to your business card, place them at strategic locations for geocaching, add place-specific details (a restaurant's menu could be encoded in a relatively small code on their window along with GPS coordinates), and so on.

The reason such codes haven't taken off here is that carriers haven't preinstalled the technology into smart and simple phones. In Japan, several years ago, major carriers combined with handset makers and advertisers and others to facilitate the adoption of the QR Code, a format that would be open (anything can be encoded, including a URL). The QR Code patentholder agreed to not collect royalties on implementations, so it's a zero-cost approach.

The Japanese carriers pushed 2D barcodes to increase use of the mobile Web, which new phones were optimized for. Pricing was also so much more reasonable than in the US, and faster standards were in use much earlier, that it made sense to try to get people to use the service. 2D codes were one part of the adoption strategy. In the US, however, the dominant Web browsing technology was the braindead WAP simplification standard that broke most pages except a handful optimized for that. It took years before smartphones got decent-enough browsers to use the Web--to even use mobile-optimized sites.

And carriers had a variety of plans, some of which included unlimited usage or usage within generous per-minute pools. Overage charges were excessive. None of this was ideal for wanting more Web usage or making users happy. With modern phones, 2D barcodes have a potential. The largest Spanish and Danish carriers are preinstalling Scanbuy's software on every phone (either by now, months ago, or soon), many Latin American carriers are signed up, and Sprint is preinstalling the software on one phone.

Third-party software makers have packages for smart and dumb phones alike, if you want to try these out. Scanbuy software reads its own EZcode, which is a controlled lookup format: a number is encoded and resolved via Scanbuy's service. Individual use is free; corporate and advertising use at a fee, shared with carriers. Scanbuy's software supports the two most popular quasi-open formats, QR Code and Data Matrix, but carriers can opt to disable that support.

On the iPhone there are a dozen packages for recognizing 2D barcodes; QuickMark is the best, and the company's software is available for a huge number of feature (basic) and smartphones. I find myself since discovering 2D barcodes using a silly process when I'm reading an article on a Web page that I want to continue reading on my phone when I leave. I go to Kaywa's QR Code generator page, paste the URL in, then use QuickMark to grab the URL on my iPhone. Imagine if...the Web page just had the QR Code already?

Defying Gravity's Reality

I've enjoyed the first three episodes of ABC's Defying Gravity, a show about a multi-year mission to visit strange new worlds...errr...sorry...all seven other planets in the solar system. It takes place after 2050, and the show gets the tone of near future without crazy bullcrap just right. Things have advanced, especially rocket technology, but there's still garbage, drinking, infrequent public transportation, and bureaucracy.

The show has its holes, however. (Update at bottom!) The spaceship has a few minor rotating rings, but also zero G. They get around the special effects budget for zero G by explaining in episode 1 that the astronauts wear nanotech suits that provide an electromagnetic attraction to an artificial down.

Of course, that doesn't explain why Ron Livingston is tossing his baseball in a perfect arc in his quarters. Or why this is demonstrated with a tomato being floated through space in the vivarium, but plants are growing with a down orientation, producing normal fruit, and a handheld misting sprayer (an insane idea in zero G) produces mist instead of propelled tiny globules. And unless there's a static hair thing, their hair should be all over the place, too.

They could have made the whole damn thing rotate for micro-gravity, or introduced a typical device like a dense material (made of neutrons or something) that was balanced by inertia with minimal tidal forces. There are about 1,000 methods in sci-fi to "solve" this problem. (In Star Trek, they just said, we've got gravity plates on each deck. End of story, but not very realistic. On the other hand, it's 500 years in the future, and they have anti-matter engines.)

Also odd, no delay in communications. Perhaps they have an ansible, but it's a major bummer (not a character on the show). It would make more sense to either integrate the notion of superluminal communications in passing -- "it's remarkable how this mission wouldn't have been possible without the Swiss tachyon acceleration breakthroug"..."Yes, isn't it" -- or use the time delay as a significant plot point.

There's also a major plot point -- potential SPOILER for those who haven't seen the show at all -- involving a pregnancy, a vasectomy, and an abortion that they're being all coy about in some ways. Livingston's Donner has a one-night stand with Zoe Barnes (played by Laura Harris), and when she asks about protection, he says he had a vasectomy. She believes him. This becomes a whole ugly thing, mostly revealed in the first episode, and trickling out through subsequent ones.

But Zoe, like everyone else, would know that Donner was sterilized before he went to Mars 10 years earlier. It's part of the protocol. In the show, abortion is illegal (although seen as a temporary thing). So Zoe's most reasonable response would have been, it's not his fault: the vasectomy didn't take or reversed spontaneously (which can happen), and, damn. Instead, it's "oh, the guy is lying about it" deal. Or so it seems. In the show, it's pretty clear that an alien is responsible for anything weird.

Update! Just watched episode 4, and they explained several of the above points. A little cute in some cases, but it works. The astronauts use a nanoparticle magnetic hairspray to avoid problems in zero G, which actually makes perfect sense. The living quarters do rotate to provide microgravity, which then explains Livingston tossing his ball. The tomato is still inexplicable.