Here’s something very, very useful that I had never seen before I came to Japan:
See the fuzzy-looking square to the right? It’s called a QR code. A QR code is a 2D barcode that can contain up to 4000 characters – enough to store things like URLs and co-ordinates.
The beauty of QR codes is that they’re designed to be read using a regular digital camera. The squares in the corners of the code that you can see are used to align the image correctly.
One of the reasons this has taken off in Japan is that it perfectly aligns with the Japanese trend of having fantastically complex and functional mobile phones. So, using your camera phone, snap a picture of the QR code using the special scanning software, and it immediately interprets the data. If it’s a URL, browse directly there on your mobile phone. If it’s the map co-ordinates of a restaurant, let the phone’s built-in GPS unit tell you which way you need to walk from where you are to get there. It’s a very easy and convenient way to transfer digital information from physical objects into digital devices.
QR codes are everywhere in Japan. Advertisements, delivery dockets, confirmation slips, posters, magazines. For example, when I got my heartbreakingly fast cable Internet installed, the installation confirmation letter came with a QR code. Scan it with your phone, and your phone’s built-in web browser connects to a web page where you can pick your preferred installation time. Of course, the web page already knows it’s you because your customer ID is coded into the barcode too. Sure enough, the installation guys came at the time I selected, all without having to go through a call-centre. Sensational.
What would make it even more sensational would be owning a phone that could actually do all this. My current loaner phone is lacks some of the mod cons like a camera, but at least the menus are in English. So, looks like a shopping adventure is in the works soon. More on mobile phone culture soon!