What’s right with QR codes

I first heard QR codes called “robot barf” yesterday, when JP said it. Got a good laugh out of it too, because: yeah, if a robot could barf, that’s what it would look like.

Digging back, it looks like the first source of the joke is Andy Roberts here, or Jon Mitchell here, both of whom posted on 27 October, 2011.

Kevin Marks followed in the same vein with QR Codes, bad idea or terrible idea? on 28 January 2012. There Kevin wrote, among other things, “QR Codes ignore years of research and culture on how to communicate meaning in symbolic form designed to be captured by image processing tools behind a lens. We have this technology. It is called writing.”

Both John and Kevin pointed to RobotBarf.com, an innocuous-looking Japanese site without a QR code anywhere to be seen. Its title, translated by Google in Chrome, is “Floor coatings proficient poisoning.” The subtitle is “Sister and sister floor coating proficient.” The body copy begins, “By the way, eh had fallen at the door my sister When you go home? What does this murder? The’m was about to close the door involuntarily thought such as.Voice of sister sank to the floor face willl “welcome back” I heard, I went to the front door or what ‘s also Ninen.” Thus speaks the technology we call writing.

Citing Kevin, JP asked me if there was a difference between a QR code and a link. I said yes, because the author can make a QR code mean anything, and a QR code can also have any number of authors, or documents, or you-name-it, associated with it. I didn’t have the time make more of a case than that, but now I do, so here goes.

Think of a QR code as a window to anything, rather than as a form of writing.

For example, a QR code can be window on a product to the relationship between the owner and the company that made the product — and, for that matter, with anybody else involved. That’s where Phil Windley goes in his post titled Using Products to Build Customer Relationships. Some background: Phil’s company, Kynetx, makes QR code tags and stickers called “SquareTags,” which you can attach to the things you own, and which can be programmed, by you, to say or mean anything. I wrote about this a bit in The Internet of Me and My Things. Phil unpacks his case with this:

…by and large, ecommerce sites, from the smallest to the biggest, are just glorified online catalogs not significantly different from their more mundane mail-order catalog cousins. I’ve always thought the Internet ought to allow us to do better — to really change how merchants, companies and service organizations interact and relate to people.

Our vision for SquareTag is just that: helping people and companies have better (i.e. less dysfunctional) relationships. We believe that products are natural connecting points between companies and their customers. Because SquareTag makes those products smart and gives them an online presence, SquareTag provides a powerful tool for building vendor-customer relationships.

When I speak in my blog or on stage about the Internet of My Things, I’m highlighting the natural and powerful feelings people have about their stuff. As Doc Searls says in Chapter 21 of The Intention Economy, “possession is 9/10ths of the three-year old”. Our connections with our things are primitive and deep. We spend much of our time and resources acquiring, using, managing, and disposing of things.

Because of the strong feelings people have about them, products are a natural connecting point between manufacturers, retailers, service companies, and the customer. SquareTag is designed to deepen the connection between people and things by making the interactions richer.

With SquareTag, any thing becomes a programming platform. Products become more useful, more helpful with the addition of SquareTag. As an example, SquareTag gives almost anything an online social profile

Many companies confuse “having information” about their customers with having a relationship. That might constitute customer intelligence, but it’s not a relationship. Relationships are built on common interests and an exchange of value. Both parties need to see that value or it’s not a relationship. People are more likely to resent the fact that you know things about them outside of a relationship…

Using SquareTag companies can engage in a new kind of customer relationship management that does more than store contact information and interaction history. SquareTag provides a way to establish genuine relationships that provide continuous interaction throughout the customer life-cycle. This changes “relationship management” into “relating.”

Between the elipses above, Phil goes into specific use cases and scenarios. It’s deep and fun stuff. Go read it.

Meanwhile, think of how lame it has been for QR codes, so far, to be limited mostly to (actual) robot barf on the corners of ads and on the windows of shops, leading the scanner back to something promotional put up by the company at a website. This is worse than uninteresting: it wastes everybody’s time. But let’s say my next Canon camera, maybe the forthcoming 5D Mark IV, comes with a QR code unique to that camera. If I scan it on Day 1 of owning it, I’ll get, perhaps, a greeting and a link to the owner’s manual. Then, after I put it in my personal cloud, I can add my own annotations, such as links to the photos I’ve taken with the camera, or to my own notes for Canon’s repair people, should I have to send it in for a fix. (Which I’ve done many times over the years with my various cameras.) The repair people can then scan the code and see the notes. Canon too can add updates to the code. (Remember, I can program viewing permissions in my pCloud.) And, if I ever sell the camera or give it away, my notes and Canon’s can go with it, and Canon’s CRM system can be updated with relationship information about the new owner.

Finally, in case you need one more thing to convince you that QR codes are only ugly when misused — and are sure to become beautiful once they are used in creative new ways — there is this item in Wikipedia:

The use of QR codes is free of any license. The QR code is clearly defined and published as an ISO standard.

Denso Wave owns the patent rights on QR codes, but has chosen not to exercise them.

Thank you, Denso Wave.


  1. Joshua Kahn’s avatar

    Good stuff as usual Doc. ‘Robot barf’ is going into my lexicon.

    My own personal take on QR codes from a year and a half ago.


    The angle you take above in your camera example is one of the interesting vectors for me with QR codes or similar technology. I think QR codes could function as the memory and/or interface for screen-less objects. The object borrows the smartphone screen essentially. Obviously this could be done with bluetooth, NFC, or RFID possibly as well. Although I think QR codes are the simplest execution.

    When I was at Best Buy (yes, that’s past tense) we tested a project to use QR codes as a feedback mechanism for customers in the store. See details here…


    Cheers, lets talk soon.

  2. Johannes Ernst’s avatar

    For me, QR codes are a pointer into the 4th dimension, otherwise known as cyberspace:

    Pick up the the thing. Look to the right and left, ah, it’s round there. Look to the top and bottom, it’s blue there. Look at the front and back, nicely designed. Look at the QR code, it’s it price and warranty and history and what have you.

    Clumsy, for sure. They should be smaller, we should not have to run a separate app on our phones, RFID or NFC or something like that could be cooler. etc. etc. But that will come in time, the basic idea is sound.

  3. Drummond Reed’s avatar

    Doc, +1. A QR code is to machines what a URL is to humans. The fact that using Squaretag they could be used to instantiate VRM relationships based on a product you own (or might want to own) just made them MUCH more useful.

  4. Roger’s avatar

    The problem I have with QR codes is obfuscation. Like URL shortening services you can’t look at these things and know anything about what they’re pointing to. That’s a recipie for abuse by sales and marketing i.e., spam.

    It’s also unclear what QR codes do that an ASCII URL can’t.

  5. Michael Clark’s avatar

    National Geographic has an article about problems at Mt. Everest. One of the suggestions is to give all climbers an “Everest ID” that incorporates QR codes. Full article at:

Comments are now closed.