Consumers crack the QR code
If you are a follower of fashion you'll know those strange looking black squares with Escher-like patterns can take a smartphone user to a website or to YouTube just by snapping their picture.
But New Zealanders have been pretty slow to use QR codes - that's QR for "quick response".
Depending on which side you sit on, QR codes are either the best marketing invention since sliced bread, or a fancy barcode for geeks.
Originally used for tracking car parts in Japan, QR codes can hold 7000 characters, much more information than an ordinary barcode. So it was not long before they were harnessed by those who could see its marketing and database potential.
On the optimists' side is Wellington's Ollie Langridge. He co-owns the designer QR code company Set QR NZ.
Set QR has made a name for itself as arguably the first company to put artwork and 3D images into the codes. With a branch in Tokyo, the company boasts a eye-popping list of global clients such as Disney, Time Warner and Louis Vuitton.
Ninety per cent of the company's business is offshore but New Zealand firms are beginning to take notice, including Immigration New Zealand and Helipro.
"What's happening is a lot of imported goods are coming into New Zealand with QR codes on them, so people are going 'What's that?'," says Langridge.
"A year and a half ago, a lot of people thought they were like a little printing mistake, a kind of digital tweak and other people thought it was a crossword gone wrong."
The key reason for Langridge's optimism is smartphone use by Kiwis is growing fast. Just last year only 16 to 18 per cent of Kiwi adults had a smartphone.
"Suddenly it's exploded and figures released at the end of June indicated that we were at 44 per cent smartphone penetration in New Zealand."
With consumer behaviour changing so quickly, Langridge is convinced that QR codes will become as commonplace here as they are in Japan and Korea.
One of the earliest adapters of QR codes here is Napier's National Aquarium of New Zealand.
The aquarium has free wifi and places QR codes at various points to offer smartphone users audio or video snippets - a virtual guide, if you like.
Manager Rob Yarrall says many Kiwis don't know what they are, but young people and foreigners do.
"A lot of Asian visitors to New Zealand, they recognise the QR codes instantly and straight away you see them pulling out their smartphones."
A similar experiment with QR codes and another new technology, "augmented reality", drew crowds of new customers to a museum in Poland.
Yarrall doubts that his visitors are coming for the QR experience but "it enhances the visit for people who were probably coming anyway".
On the negative side, QR codes are still new to many of us and even the advertisers are aware of this.
John Schofield, managing director of digital marketing firm Catch!Media, says it's been his experience that QR codes are just a bit too much for most people.
In the US, he says, marketers have found they need to put as much effort into educating people as they do developing the actual campaign.
"The problem with it all ... is that it requires people to do stuff that there's a reasonable big hurdle to jump over. "Reach into their pocket, pick up the phone, open their app, hold it up. To get people over hurdles like that, you have to give people reasonably big incentives to do it.
"It's not as easy an action as clicking a banner [on the internet] or even picking up a phone and making a phone call."
The other major barrier for QR codes is that other new technologies are racing over the horizon.
Kaleb Francis, of brand consultancy Marque, is a qualified supporter of QR codes but he's certain they will be superceded by NFC (near-field communication) or RFID (radio frequency ID) devices within a year.
New Zealand banks are already testing NFC as a way of making payments with a phone.
Even augmented reality, a nascent form of technology not unlike holograms, is making inroads.
"You can get near-field communication stickers which you can literally stick onto the back of your phone and you've then got a device which can pay for all your groceries, which is really cheap.
"That's being rolled out in the States at the moment. It's just a matter of time before that trickles down here ... QR codes will be a thing of the past."
However, Francis says QR codes have still been used to amazing effect, such as at the Tesco supermarket in Korea.
The supermarket allows time- poor subway users to order their groceries from a wall of codes and have them delivered to their home. Net effect: increased sales and market share.
QR codes also make novel business cards and are great for publicity. The NZSO has used them on concert posters for more than a year, to link people to sound files so they can preview the music.
Other advantages to QR codes are that they are inexpensive to create and can provide a rich source of data for marketing use.
But Francis warns people will get turned off QR codes if they are abused.
Badly designed links which give the much derided "QR fail" message, or being transported to a feeble website won't advance their popularity.
"It really just comes down to [advertisers] understanding how to use it and how they can get people to scan it.
"Because as a consumer, I don't have a lot of time to muck around. There are so many other interesting things for me to look at that if I have one bad experience with a QR code or with any other sort of brand engagement, I'm going to be gone."
Langridge agrees QR "misuse" is an issue, but said there's no reason all the new technologies can't coexist.
NFC codes, he says, are fantastic for payments but can be intrusive, with their pop messages, whereas QR codes are elective and visible.
"QR, once you see the code, is a call to action. It's a bridge between the physical and the digital world. It's a visual cue.
"It's a very trendy thing to say QR codes are finished and they're over. But if you look at the stats behind the growth and the awareness then I really think the QR codes going to be around for a substantial amount of time."
He's amazed that given their commonplace use in Asia, only a handful of Kiwi exporters are putting QR codes on their Asian- bound products.
NFC, AR, RFID, "all of these things can exist in parallel with each other ... People go, it's going to be this system or that system - well, actually it's going to be all of them."
Leading uses of QR codes: product information, free coupons, and embedded real estate videos
Barriers to QR codes: having to scan it, a poor experience from brand owners once scanned, and older smartphones which cannot scan the code
Where not to use them: T-shirts and other non-flat surfaces, billboards and in poor lighting
- Sunday Star Times