I was with a Japanese corporate client recently and as usual over dinner I asked them what was new on their cell phone (technically not personally!). I say as usual because I have found that if you ask that question in Japan you will always learn something interesting. This case was no exception but first some background.
It is worth noting that the Japanese are addicted to their cell phones with over 100 million (nearly 80% of the population) using the widely available high-speed 3G systems. Many of these users have been taking advantage of QR (Quick Response) codes which are two dimensional barcodes. QR codes can be read by any mobile device with a camera and the appropriate reader software. QR codes appear all over Japan on billboards, in print, on websites and in store windows. Even the Japanese government uses them with the immigration service stamping QR codes on passports detailing the visa status. I first saw them at a trade show in Tokyo where every stand seemed to have one.
QR codes can store up to 7089 numeric characters, 4296 alphanumeric characters or 1817 characters of Japanese (kanji script). That compares with 20-30 (depending on the standard) ascii characters for a conventional one dimensional bar code.
If you want to read more about QR codes Nokia has a simple explanation with some useful links and here is a short article on a potential development from NTT called Audio Barcodes.
Back to my dinner conversation. My client who is obviously a conscientious consumer told me that her local supermarket has started to use QR code labels on some fresh produce. She shops with the QR reader software enabled on her cell phone, takes a picture of the label and is then connected to a site with all the supplier’s details.
The labels look like this:
You can see the QR code in the bottom right hand corner and the supplier’s details, in this case for a lettuce, look like this:
My Japanese is not very good but this has all sorts of interesting information; exactly where it was grown, when the seeds were sown, when the lettuce was harvested, the fertilizer used, the insecticide used, the bactericide used, the herbicide used and lots more. I have to say I was impressed!
She also told me that she uses QR codes to put useful RSS feeds on to her cell phone. It transpired that this will work on any RSS feed, not just those especially for mobile devices, because the software adapts the content automatically. I have generated a QR code for the feed on this site:
This is what you would see on the cell phone:
If you would like to generate QR codes for your own rss feeds you can do so on the Kaywa site.
So when can we expect to see QR codes used widely in the US? Not any time soon would be my guess. As anyone who has visited the major cell phone trade shows like CTIA Wireless the latest and best cell phones on display are labeled ‘Not available in the US’. The three different transmission modes, CDMA (Sprint & Verizon), GSM (AT&T & T-Mobile) and iDEN (Nextel) used in the US make it a far more attractive proposition for manufacturers to concentrate on the European and Asian markets for the launch of new products and functionality, where they just use GSM.
Europeans are just beginning to see QR codes but if you have Japanese or Asian customers it’s definitely worth knowing about QR codes and the many ways they are used for marketing.
September 28, 2007 update.
A reader has emailed me about a new store in fashionable Rue de Turbigo, Paris, France. Called Denim Code they are selling designer clothes with QR codes attached. This publicity photo shows a QR code on a pair of jeans but do Parisian males need a excuse to take a picture of a lady’s bottom? What message will they receive on their cell phone? I bet those of you with a marketing brain are already thinking of hundreds of novel ideas!