From tour guides to cab fares, system has wide variety of uses. Whenever Feng Xingyu sees a quick response code – a square barcode with an arrangement of black dots – he grabs his smartphone and scans it to see where it will lead him.
Sometimes it is to a shopping voucher, other times a video advertisement, but usually it is to the homepage of a business such as a restaurant or bar.
QR codes were first designed for the automotive industry. More recently, the system has become popular outside the industry due to its quick readability and large storage capacity compared to standard barcodes.
In late November, the 22-year-old student got a surprise when he scanned a pack of tissues he was given as he strolled around West Lake in Hangzhou, capital of East China’s Zhejiang province. Rather than an advert, the code led him to an audio guide to the Leifeng Pagoda, one of the city’s top scenic spots.
“It’s awesome – I never imagined a QR code could serve as the trigger for a tourist guide,” he said.
Since Dec 1, Hangzhou’s tourism authority has been distributing packets of free tissues carrying QR codes linked to walking tours for visitors.
Hangzhou Moving Media, developer of the audio guide, is handing out the packets at bus and railway stations, as well as airports and highway toll stations.
However, for general manager Zhang Lei, the idea did not come easily.
A keen tourist and a businessman working in paper production for decades, Zhang and his partners have seen increasing applications for QR codes at various scenic spots around the world. The codes link to a video clip, a map or an audio instruction, but Zhang said they are not always easy to use.
“Codes were printed on paper bracelets, which can be uncomfortable when the edges scratch the wrist, while others were linked to Web pages that only displayed a screen fixed at the entrance, so when you move forward, the code is useless,” Zhang said.
When he returned from tours, he thought that printing codes on tissue packs advertising may be a smart idea, because they are often among items that people carry, alongside a mobile phone.
In late November, Moving Media, supported by the Hangzhou authorities, handed out more than 10,000 packs of free tissues that led to audio guides for Hangzhou’s scenic spots.
Those who received the tissues said they liked the idea.
“They’re easy to use with the help of free Wi-Fi in the city, and I like the design,” said Li Shaohan, a 35-year-old tourist. The only concern for Li – and many other tourists – is the safety of the colorful printing.
Zhang said the printing involves water-based dyes that have passed tests by quality-control authorities, and all the colors used are safe and environmentally friendly.
“This is the second version of our designs. The first version had more colors, resembling oil painting on a silk scarf. This second version is more abstract, using fewer colors and resembling a Chinese brush painting,” said Shao Juanyi, director of the project.
The company has also designed a device that looks like a vending machine and dispenses free tissues.
“We will continue to give out tissues for free, but we’ll think of ways to make things profitable, such as including QR codes of restaurants, hotels, leisure services – the market value can be significant,” Zhang said.
The company has registered more than 20 patents to protect the intellectual property rights of the audio tour guide system using QR codes on tissue packs.
But convenient applications for QR codes do not stop there.
Taxi drivers in Hangzhou, Chengdu, Qingdao and Jinan are using QR codes that lead to Alipay accounts to collect fares. Passengers without change or who don’t have their wallets or purses with them can scan the QR codes stamped in the taxis, confirm the fare, then click “pay now” on their smartphones if Alipay is installed.
Yuan Haibao, one of the first taxi drivers in Hangzhou to use the application, said, “It takes only five seconds to pay.”
The traveling public can also voice their opinions by scanning QR codes. Passengers in Nanjing, capital of East China’s Jiangsu province, can scan the codes in buses to rate quality of service. Buses on some 10 routes are using the system.
In Ninghai, Zhejiang province, farmers can scan the QR codes on packs of fertilizer in stores to identify the producers, quality classification and expiry date.
“The key point is to learn how to use the applications, which is not that difficult. Once we farmers have mastered the simple procedures, we find it not only interesting but helpful,” said Wang Haofeng, a 29-year-old tea gardener.
Experts say the market share of QR code applications can be “tremendous”, but some problems need to be fixed as developers attempt to expand their markets, including security controls and research on user behavior.
For system developers, the most important thing is to identify an incentive to make users scan.
“Scanning is a simple move, but prompting people to scan is not easy. Users must benefit from scanning and they must be well-informed about the benefits before they reach for their phones,” Zhang said.
Xiang Ligang, an Internet expert and CEO of cctime, a Chinese telecommunications Internet portal, said: “More code-reading devices in public spaces are needed to support a smooth QR code system.”
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