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What's now media!

New media is not only a phrase to describe digital innovation. It is a social weapon to repress also, undermine and upset. It is meant to make us feel unsettled, like we have missed something.

All old media were once new. By the time most software and hardware is marketed and mainstreamed, it is already obsolete. The moment that Apple'siPad 1 was released, podcasts, vodcasts and blogs were calling for its replacement. This arrived within the year.

I have little use for phrases such as 'new media' or its more ageist adversary, 'old media.' Instead, I am interested in Now Media. For me, Now Media describes platforms which are useful, which can hook into our daily lives and improve our experiences of cities, culture and education. For me, a great example of Now Media is QR Codes. Short for Quick Response codes, they were created in 1994 by Denso, a subsidiary company of Toyota.

Smartphones

They are able to hold more data than a conventional barcode, can be read by smartphones and enable users to scan a QR code and - in a real time and a real place - find online information that resonates with their physical context. They can be used on business cards, public art, magazines, menus, food packaging and wine bottles. As old media, they have extraordinary uses in our present. They are 'Now Media.'

A fine book has recently been released about QR Codes by Mick Winter. Based in the Napa Valley in California, his Scan Me: Everybody's guide to the magical world of QR codes provides a guide to their use.

For this article in Montage, I spoke with Mick Winter about his book and the potential of QR Codes for Sri Lankan education, culture and business.

Question: What drew you to write a book on QR Codes?

Answer: I wrote one because there wasn't one already. As part of a graduate school project, I was researching the awareness of QR codes in my community, the Napa Valley in California. I also hoped to make key people and organisations in the community aware of the benefits of using QR codes. So I created QR codes for businesses, local government and non-profit organisations, then printed out small posters that they could put in their windows for passers-by to see.

I explained to the businesses the value of QR Codes. Some people understood, some didn't get it at all, and many said-after I demonstrated how to use them-"I understand, but how can I use them?" So I looked for a book on QR Codes that I could recommend. Not only did I not find a good QR Code book, I didn't find any books at all. So I wrote one.

Q:Why do you think that, although they were invented in 1994, they are gaining increasing use right now?

Economy

A: Perhaps they're starting to be used more now because of the economy. At any time, but particularly in a bad economy, businesses are always looking for something that will give them an edge over the competition, or that will catch the public's eye in a new way. Actually North America, where I live, is way behind. Europe is also. I can't speak for South Asia but I do know that in Japan, where they were invented, they have been extremely popular for years. As they are in South Korea. So we in the West are just slow. But they're here.

Another reason, of course, is that more and more people have mobile phones, and now camera phones, which is what they need to scan QR Codes. There are about 1.5 billion personal computers in the world and for 5 billion mobile phones. For the majority of people on the planet, the mobile phone is, and will be, their only connection to the Internet. QR Codes can be an important way of connecting with those people.

QR Codes aren't so much a new medium in themselves, as a new way of linking to media. I see them as kind of a digital flying carpet that can take us anywhere on the Internet. A portal to a magical, unseen world. I predict that not long in the future, they'll be widely used throughout the world. So much so, that they're just another tool in the media basket.

Q:What value could QR Codes hold for Sri Lankan small and medium-sized businesses?

A:I can't answer that in a truly localised way. But the value I'm aware of in both Japan and the US is likely shared by most other countries. In short, QR Codes can provide information to people who are not actually at the location of a business, or who need information not easily accessible at the business.

For example, QR Codes in a store window can give people information even when the business is closed, such as information on special sales, or positive reviews from other customers. Inside the store, QR Codes next to products can lead to videos showing how those products are used. QR Codes in newspapers and magazines, on flyers, posters or billboards, can attract customers who may have never even heard of a particular business but are intrigued by what they see through the QR Code.

QR Codes

QR Codes have to be used properly, however. One of the first businesses I persuaded to put a poster in their window was a restaurant. One of the QR Codes on the poster linked to their menu. The owner then pointed out that if they were standing in front of his restaurant, they didn't need to use a QR Code to see it.

The menu itself was in the window. He was right. That made it very clear to me what many businesses in the US don't yet understand. Don't use QR Codes for information that people can obtain in an easier way. Another caution is that if you're using a QR Code to link to a website, make sure that that website has been designed to be mobile-friendly. If people can't see the website easily on their phone's screen, they'll immediately lose attention, and their time and yours will have been wasted.

Remember that QR Codes are for mobile phones. The key is mobile. People are on the move. They want useful information that will help them decide where to go or what to buy, such as movie trailers, or restaurant and product reviews; to learn something specific at their location, such as information on a building or home for rent or sale; or to get further information about a newspaper advertisement or news item. QR Codes also deliver audio, video, automatic phone calling, and text messaging. They enable people to register for contests sponsored by businesses, order tickets for an event, receive a coupon or news about a special sale. The codes are a media tool that leads to other media.

Q:What are the benefits of QR Codes to public institutions and public art in particular?

A:They're perfect for museums, art galleries, zoos, and any kind of tourist attraction. They can replace the headphones and receivers used in many of those locations. With a small QR Code displayed at each exhibit, visitors simply have to scan the code to hear information about what they're seeing or a talk by the artist about his or her work.

They're convenient for the visitors, most of whom already have Internet-connected mobile phones, and the museum or gallery doesn't have to deal with the time and cost of renting, cleaning and maintaining the equipment.

For public art, there's an example in the city of Napa, where I live. We have an exhibit of sculptures scattered throughout the downtown area on sidewalks and in parks. Each art work has a small QR Code mounted near it. People viewing the sculpture can simply scan the code to hear a message from the artist. The exhibit's organisers also produce a free (and downloadable) brochure which has a QR Code next to each artist's listing.

So when tourists go back home, they can still hear the artists talking and, if video is used, see other examples of the artists' work. Another interesting use is for self-guided tours through towns or other special areas of interest.

QR Codes can provide information about historic buildings, past events at particular locations, even plants and wildlife. If it's not possible for people to actually enter an historic, government or otherwise closed building, a QR Code can lead them to a video tour of that building's interior. All of these codes can be placed in specific locations or they can be on printed maps that visitors can follow.

Q:What role can QR Codes hold for schools, universities and education more generally?

A:In the primary grades they can be used for learning games such as treasure hunts, leading young children from place to place through hints and clues. In secondary school, they can link from printed handouts to external information such as websites, videos and podcasts.

They can also lessen printing costs and the need to update textbooks and course materials as students can go directly to online sources of the material. Students can create their own QR Codes to use in projects. They can also be used at any educational level to identify students on tests, so that there is no name bias in evaluations.

Assignment

In higher education particularly, QR Codes can be included on syllabi and assignment sheets to link to full-text information in academic journals, or to websites, videos and other material relevant to a course. In language study, QR Codes can link to websites and articles in both the language being learned and the student's native language. This is also valuable for international students, who can easily access translations when necessary.

Q:What do you hope is the outcome from your book Scan Me?

A: I hope it will encourage all types of organizations and even individuals to use QR Codes. They can be used for an unlimited number of purposes to communicate all types of information.

And, they can be fun. One of the best features is that they're easy to make. They're also free to make. You can find websites that let you create QR Codes just by searching the Internet. I have some of the best of those websites listed in my book.

QR Codes are far more than just another advertising or sales tool. If the Internet can bring the entire world to your mobile phone, a QR Code narrows that world down to very specific pre-established information.

They're for someone to communicate very specific information to someone else. They're useful, enjoyable, and interesting for the person who scans the codes, and productive and beneficial for the person or business that made them. That's a lot of value in a little square.

Mick Winter's book Scan Me: Everybody's Guide to the Magical World of QR Codes is available from Amazon in both a print and Kindle edition. tara.brabazon@uoit.ca

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