Are QR codes coming back? Did they ever go away?
The increasing use of QR codes in a number of highly visible ways – and especially their recent role in helping people to ‘check-in’ to hospitality venues to assist the contact tracing process – means that people are more familiar than ever with them. Additionally, many smartphones can now read QR codes through their native camera app, meaning we don’t need to install a third-party QR reader to access them.
Around the year 2010, QR codes started to be used by an increasing number of cultural organisations to provide another way to access content through smartphones. However, staff would often find that the codes weren’t being accessed. There was also a contingent of cultural practitioners who argued that the codes weren’t complimenting the cultural content, but actually taking people’s attention away from it.
This article from 2016 details the ‘death of QR codes’ in museums: https://cuseum.com/blog/life-death-of-qr-codes-in-museums,
However, this pre-pandemic blog post from 2019 questions whether they ever really went away: https://medium.com/whitney-digital/qr-codes-alive-and-well-47115abd234.
With their increasing usage in more familiar places, is it time to rethink the QR code?
QR codes aren’t a new thing, despite their seemingly sudden emergence during the pandemic. They were designed over 25 years ago by Japanese automotive manufacturer Denso Ware to track vehicle parts. They enabled quick scanning of data and are capable of storing more characters than traditional barcodes – around 4000 vs 20. During the early 2000s, QR code scanning technology for mobile phones was developed. QR codes saw a brief period of popularity around 2012 but a lack of public awareness and the need for specialist software to scan them on mobile led to their decline in use until recently. Many smartphones come with QR code scanners in-built into their camera software.
National Museums Scotland adopted QR codes in 2011, putting around 70 of them in a gallery, allowing access to extra collections material like videos and photographs through SCRAN. The “Typewriter Revolution” exhibition contains QR codes next to objects, showing how the typewriters were used and what they sounded like. QR codes were also used in the Galloway Hoard exhibition, allowing access to 3D scans of objects that were able to be manipulated.
The British Museum currently uses QR codes as part of their family programming. Several galleries have QR codes that you scan which encourage you to interact with objects in the galleries in imaginative ways.
Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands in it’s “delinking and relinking” exhibition used QR codes in conjunction with app “Smartify” to offer different perspectives on the exhibition. They have audio descriptions for those with visual impairments, as well as 5 tours for different audiences linked from QR codes to Smartify.
It is important to recognise that QR codes – or any similar technology that links exhibits to online content – can not answer every problem, and that they aren’t going to be useful for everybody.
In order to use a QR code, visitors will need a compatible smartphone and will need reasonable network access – which isn’t always available in rural or remote coastal locations and can be difficult behind the thick stone walls of an older museum building or other enclosed heritage setting. There is also the potential to tamper with poorly displayed QR codes, allowing the potential spread of malware to your handheld device.
There have also been identified issues around relying on QR codes when working with visually impaired audiences. This article from VocalEyes goes into detail about research that they have done: https://vocaleyes.co.uk/about/research/digital-accessibility-qr-codes-and-short-number-sms/
What do you think about QR codes, are they back for good and can they overcome their limitations?