QR codes and 2D Data Matrix come to the rescue of print
By Barney Cox Friday, 18 September 2009
While the digital world has taken some business away from printers, it may also offer a way to ensure print remains a viable medium. Barney Cox explains
Part of the genius of the internet is the ability to click on a link on one page and to be instantly taken off to something else. It's one of the things that print hasn't been able to offer to date.
Another one of print's shortcomings in the modern media mix has been the difficulty of measuring consumer response to a piece of print, and therefore its effectiveness.
However, the ability to do both these things is beginning to be exploited by leading-edge media applications. ICT and imaging giants, including Google, Microsoft, Nokia and Ricoh along with a myriad of specialists and start-ups, are all vying to be the next big thing, using open formats such as QR Codes and 2D Data Matrix symbols along with proprietary tag formats. They all neatly glue together print with the big new marketing medium - mobile internet.
"Print and mobile are the most closely related media," says Mendy Mendelsohn, chief executive of 3G Vision, an Israeli technology company which has developed the i-nigma software that allows mobile phones to read QR Codes and 2D Data Matrix. "If you're reading, you are likely to have your phone with you. It's a good link for interacting with print."
It's not just magazines, books or newspapers. You can print codes and tags onto anything, including point-of-sale displays and posters. Z-Card has also done work with customers of its eponymous marketing products incorporating the codes.
Codes may also help to simplify two much-talked about applications touted as the saviours of print; cross media campaigns linking print to online via personalised URLS (Purls) and Transpromo.
"Encoding a Purl in a QR Code reduces barriers to response for a recipient," says Joe Barber chief QR officer of CodeZ QR, which has developed QRPurlz, codes created from Purls for high-volume print applications. "Instead of having to type a Purl into a phone handset the recipient can simply scan the QRPurlz and be instantly connected to the Purl. By lowering these barriers you can greatly increase response rates."
The following codes link to printweek.com. If you have a phone that supports it, download the appropriate readers and try it. Tag types (from top): Colour Microsoft Tag; Colour Microsoft Custom Tag; Monochrome Microsoft Custom Tag; QR Code; 2D Data Matrix
These codes are not just restricted to URLs, although they are the most common information. You can also encode phone numbers, text response numbers, geo tags and contact details, so you could add a code with your details to the back of your business card, saving lots of fiddly data entry for the recipient to add you to their contacts.
While the use of this technology for marketing and communications is in its infancy in the West, it's widespread in Japan where around 80% of all phones sold come pre-installed with the software needed to read the codes and get taken to the relevant website.
In the UK, the use of these types of codes is just beginning to take off. Nokia is behind a number of projects including Point & Find, a technology used to create an interactive experience for the Camden Crawl music festival in April (see Technically Speaking, PrintWeek 11 September, page 16). Other UK-based examples include Marks & Spencer and Pespi using codes on their packaging, the brochure for the FIPP international publishing conference in May and BBC Radio 1's use of codes for its Big Weekend festival in Swindon, also in May.
As marketing budgets come under increasing scrutiny and firms demand a return on marketing investment figure anyone wanting to use print faces a problem. The old saying of "I know half my advertising works, just not which half," no longer cuts any ice, and the danger is that even when print is more effective, if it comes up against a medium that can be measured, some advertisers may chose to go for the medium where results are calculable.
Iain McCready chief executive of NeoMedia, which is an application service provider for brands who want to use codes, says: "Analytics are absolutely essential. In commercial applications that is what people are finding most beneficial."
Aaron Getz, product unit manager for Microsoft's Tag project says: "Partners can track responses back to a specific magazine placement or poster site."
Barriers to take-up
With tags starting to be used on all manner of print what are the obstacles to adoption?
"The biggest barrier so far is having the requisite software installed on people's phones," says McCready. "The carriers in the UK - phone networks, such as 3, Orange, O2 T-Mobile and Vodafone - have been a bit slow to adopt it and install the software on their phones, although it doesn't cost them as we operate on a revenue sharing model."
While it may not cost them to provide the service it does cost to have the software, such as 3G Vision's i-nigma, to be installed on the phones. "The issue is getting the software onto handsets," says Mendelsohn.
For users of the smart phones, such as the iPhone and the Blackberry that use app stores, it's relatively simple for users to find and install the necessary software. However, the users that do so represent only a small part of the market. For the uber-geeky with the right phone, Google has a project to develop open source barcode reading software called Zebra Crossing and known by the initials ZXING. But for mass market it may be a case of wait and see.
"For folks that don't use high-end phones, the application has to be pre-installed onto the handset and that depends on network carriers," he says. "Until handset vendors have orders from enough operators they won't install it as standard."
Certain Nokia and Samsung models include a reader as standard, but widespread adoption depends on having software installed in new phones and consumers being willing to upgrade their handsets.
One alternative, albeit one that is only operating in the US at the moment, is offered by a firm called Jagtag. Rather than using software on the phone, users snap a code and then picture message (MMS) the tag to Jagtag, which decodes it and points the phone to the target site.
While this gets around the problem of needing dedicated software it also introduces a non-standard tag design, and one thing McCready says the industry has been working hard on is to move towards standardisation for QR and Data Matrix codes.
Microsoft has other ideas and has developed its own Microsoft Tag technology. Currently available as a free beta, the service includes code generation and analytics. Microsoft claims significant advantages for its Tags, which are available in a number of formats including what it calls ‘Custom Tags'. Its high-capacity colour codes can store much more data in a smaller space than rival codes, and are claimed to be very tolerant of low image capture quality.
"QR codes and Data Matrix are a bit clunky, visually" says MMT Digital new business director Will Hawkins. "The custom versions MS Tags can be made to look more appealing and more part of a design."
However the technology is used, there is agreement that it offers a lifeline for print and is about to hit the big time.
NeoMedia's McCready says: "People have to get used to it. Initially just three or four percent of people use it and then it snowballs very quickly. It's like the early days of the web when firms started publishing URLs in print ads. At first people wondered what they were, then they started to use them."
"Within the next 18 months to two years, this will be a big part of interaction with offline material," says Hawkins. "It could add a lot of life back to print because print already offers a good experience. This is great because it gives new life to a good medium by enhancing it."
HOW TO GET STARTED WITH CODES
First you need to decide what format of code you want to use – 2D Data Matrix and QR Codes are the most common and can be read by the most readers. They can be created by many websites for free use. Other formats, such as including Microsoft Tag, are proprietary, although Tag is free to use and the reader is free to download.
Then you use the online software to create a code based on the type of information you want to encode. It’s possible to embed a URL, an email address, a telephone number or even a V Card with full contact details. Some higher-density data tags even allow you to encode music or video.
The online services then create a code, sometimes in a choice of file formats including PDF, PNG, JPEG and TIFF and physical sizes for use in different media. Once you have your code in a suitable format and resolution, you can use standard design tools to place it in a layout. Different symbols may have different minimum reproduction sizes to ensure they can be successfully read. These can vary with the type of output. For instance you would want a very large size for a billboard or use on a digital screen, but on a DVD cover or book a much smaller code would be used to make sure it didn’t dominate the design. For more advanced applications it is possible to buy software that can create codes on the fly – this would be the case if you wanted to encode a personalised URL (Purl) for example.
3G Vision www.i-nigma.com
Google Zebra Crossing http://code.google.com/p/zxing/
Microsoft tags www.microsoft.com/tag
Ricoh Innovations/iCandy http://icandy.ricohinnovations.com
Latest jobs Jobs web feed
- Sales Executive (Home based) Key Recruitment £40K ( negotiable ) plus commission plus car and mobile, Essex, London, Hertfordshire, Surrey
- Print Buyer Pyramid Consultancy Ltd £25,000 - £30,000pa, London
- Print Estimator | Exhibition & Display Print | North West Mercury Search and Selection £25k , Manchester
- UK Sales Manager | Self Adhesive Labels | UK - Home Based Mercury Search and Selection £32k-£40k + Attractive commission structure, pension, life insurance, car, laptop & smart phone , UK - home based
- Account Director - Reprographics/ Mail Room - London asg Up to £45,000 + bonus + benefits, London