Why QR Codes Underachieve

A few weeks ago, Tobi Lutke, the founder and CEO of Shopify, tweeted a short but accurate assessment of the state of QR Codes today. It went like this:

“The west is still using QRCodes totally wrong. A QRCode on a restaurant table that opens the menu is not really what we want. A QRCode can be unique to the table and allow food ordering directly to it. Should carry state and context.”.

He hit the nail on the head. But like so many tweets, the brevity of the message left the universe begging for a further explanation of what he meant. As you might have guessed, I’m going to give it a try:

West versus East

The tweet starts out by calling out “the west” for misusing QR Codes. That’s a reference to how “the east” has been using QR Codes more broadly and purposefully for years. In Asia – most notably China – QR Codes have been used across many diverse applications. They’re placed on products to authenticate provenance and brand, they’re used for payment for goods and services, they are in advertising, job recruitment and are also used for identity and wellness verification.

Employing QR

Codes for applications like these require them to be ‘smarter’ than the QR Codes we see on things like restaurant menus and store signs today. They need to be secure, and often need to capture data about the scanner (who, what, where, when, etc…). They also need to be produced at scale. Think about producing a QR Code that dynamically represented an individual and their vaccine status. This QR would need to be integrated to a medical record system, its response would change dynamically according to someone’s changing vaccination status.

State

Implementing a QR Code where results can change dynamically start to hint at Tobi’s recommendation that QR Codes carry state. For example, if a QR Code carries a state of “unvaccinated”, then scanning an individual’s QR Code might direct a browser to a warning. Changing that state to “first dose” received might render an altogether different response if that same QR Code was scanned again.  You get the idea.

Codes like these are often called Dynamic QR Codes, which simply means that the result of scanning them can dynamically change based on an underlying attribute of what that code represents. Dynamic QR Codes are also trackable and can be edited whereas Static QR Codes – like the restaurant menu example – cannot be tracked and the destination/landing page cannot be changed.

Context

Lutke also paired Context with State in his wish for better codes.   Where State might represent something about the underlying thing a QR Code represents (e.g.: a bottle of rare whiskey), Context could represent something about the scan action itself.   Context could be something like:

  • The date and time the scan took place

  • The number of times the code has been scanned

  • The location and device from which the scan was made

Context can deliver valuable information to the maker of the QR Code and other stakeholders. In essence, Context adds another layer of value to Dynamic and Static QR Codes.

Openscreen and the Explosion of the Dynamic QR

We’re believers that QR Codes can be put to broader and better use in the “west”, so to speak. Across Health Care, Marketing, Authentication, Supply Chain and many other applications, Dynamic QR Codes can deliver secure, robust, and powerful digitization of the physical world. With our platform and developer tools, we are helping companies integrate this type of functionality into their mission-critical applications.

As for your tweet Toby, we wholeheartedly agree. Thanks for putting out the call to action and we hope you keep an eye on us as we set out to change the way QR Codes are used in everyday life.

IoT – Connecting the Next Trillion Devices

Today, we live in an Internet of Things universe where billions of devices interact with people, the cloud and each other. In our own daily lives, household appliances, personal wearables and the cars we drive have mostly graduated to the realm of IoT.

Distilled to its basics, the premise is simple: embed a tiny computer and a radio into a device so it can send and receive data between people and things. This drives automation, intelligence and interactivity that was previously impossible. And with near ubiquitous and inexpensive internet coverage, there is great incentive to invest in transforming disconnected devices into IoT-ready things.

Where are we Today?

Forecasts predict that by next year, we will have over 29 billion connected IOT devices on our planet. That’s a lot of cameras, sensors, handhelds and industrial machines. Within the four walls of your home alone, that likely includes every appliance, fixture, and screen. But let’s face it, 29 billion is a fraction of the physical inventory of the things on our planet today. To exploit the full potential of IOT, we’re actually talking about connecting trillions of things, aren’t we? There are so many items that could benefit from being connected to the cloud, items that can’t bear the added expense of a chip and a communications radio.

Branded consumer goods could leverage cloud connectivity to validate authenticity. Sensitive shipments like vaccines and legal documents could be tracked for chain of custody and transfer. Even simple print media could leverage internet connections to provide audiences with more information and interactivity. The applications are endless. So, how do we get it done?

Connecting the Unconnected:  QR and NFC

Contactless technologies like QR Codes and NFC chips provide an elegant and powerful solution for the 99% of things that can’t shoulder the added expense of a radio for connectivity. By embedding these virtually free ‘tokens’ into everyday items and using devices (like our cell phones) to act as their radios, we can create a bridge to IoT for just about anything.

While the subsiding pandemic showed us the utility of contactless technologies like QR Codes, it only gave us a tiny glimpse into how they can be used to digitize and automate the physical world. Today, most QR Codes scan to static endpoints like websites and documents. In reality, QR Codes and NFC tags can be instrumented to do far more. They can be configured to collect and store all sorts of contextual data, capture scanner demographics, and trigger dynamic workflows that change based on parameters. But to bring these features to everyday use cases, better developer tools and platforms are needed.

Openscreen and the Contactless Era of IOT

Openscreen’s vision of connecting the next trillion things in an IOT universe is based on being the broadest and most developer-friendly platform for contactless technologies like QR Codes and NFC tags. By empowering developers to generate dynamic QR Codes at scale, with robust data and scan capture utilities, we’re lowering the barriers to embed contactless tech into enterprise applications. We enable developers to securely store the things we want to connect to the cloud, and easily create the QR tokens that will get them there.   Openscreen’s developer API and SDK make it easy to get started right away, and our reference documentations showcase powerful applications across diverse industries. After all, a trillion is a big number. Let’s get going!

QR Codes for Counterfeit Detection

It’s been said that there are a whole lot of things that are fake in this world. And it’s true. The rise of unique luxury items in an increasingly homogenous world has made counterfeit products an immense problem. In fact, the Federal Bureau of Investigations recently estimated the cost of counterfeit in the US to be $600 billion annually.

Counterfeit and Fraud Detection

One of the problems in combatting counterfeits is that anything can be copied.  So, if you put a special ‘authenticity’ tag on an expensive pair of shoes, there’s nothing to prevent that tag itself from being copied.  It’s analogous to when your bank card is ‘duplicated’ (virtually or digitally): Banks can’t tell which card is real versus which card is fake. However, what they can detect is if the same card’s credentials are being used in two different places at the same time. They can also detect abnormal usage patterns, which in turn allow them to detect that counterfeiting and fraud have taken place.

Using QR Codes:  An Illustration

QR Codes are not foolproof. They can be duplicated in the same ways as the products they can protect against counterfeit. But QR Codes can be used in unique and creative ways to detect and deter fraud. Take, for example, the famous Rubik’s Cube, the world’s best-selling toy, and likely the most copied one as well. An interesting idea would be to embed a QR Code that scans to tutorials, or a solver’s club. For extreme security, they could create a unique code for every cube sold. Or, to simplify matters, they could create a unique code for every market they sell in, or for every retailer they sell through.   By watching scan patterns of these codes, they could readily detect if a specific code was being over-scanned or scanned in anomalous locations.    This could greatly diminish copy-cats.

Openscreen for Counterfeit Detection

Openscreen’s easy-to-use and powerful SDK allows retailers in any market to generate and embed the creation of unique QR Codes, at scale, via their product and package manufacturing machines. With minimal cost, companies could drive savings that would help magnify their return on investment. They could also go further and leverage QR Codes to allow customers to register product ownership, which would help to create lasting post-sale relationships with them.

Enhancing Agriculture with QR Codes

Some experts suggest that if we don’t figure out a way to improve agricultural output by 2050, this planet will have more people than it can feed. That’s a scary, but not completely unrealistic thought. In response to that, almost every aspect of farming and agriculture undergoing some level of transformation using technology. After all, our current and future generations may depend on it.

The Importance of Good Soil

I recently came across the Netflix documentary “Kiss the Ground”. It takes a multifaceted view of the importance of soil management to promote better food outcomes, optimize our use of resources, and decrease our carbon footprint.  Many of us know that soil can trap carbon dioxide emissions, but I was surprised to learn that healthier soil is must more effective at the task.  Technology has become an important tool in measuring and improving the quality of soil around the world.

Agronomists and Soil Collection

Agronomists, the professionals who practice in the science and management of agriculture, collect soil for quality testing. This practice is becoming more important as farmers aim to get more out of their land. Soil is collected, sent to a lab, and analyzed on a regular basis.  Resulting data can drive better seed prescriptions, fertilizer recommendations, and even generate valuable carbon credits for farmers. Yet, surprisingly, soil collection is a very manual process. Agronomists often use clipboards and paper to capture data when they head out to fields, leaving actual data entry to technicians who receive samples at the lab.

Openscreen, QR Codes, and Agriculture Technology

We see QR Codes as an effective way to automate the agronomist’s soil-collection lifecycle. From field to lab, serialized QR Codes can allow soil collectors to scan a bag at the point of collection. From there, important data like time and location can automatically be captured, while the QR Code can be programmed to bring the agronomist to a data collection app. Then, workflows in the app can track the bag every time it is scanned, as seed prescriptions are generated, and carbon credits are accumulated.

Openscreen’s powerful SDK provides an easy way to generate unique, trackable QR Codes at scale, which can be used to digitize agriculture technology. As manual tasks like soil collection become important elements of our food supply chain, leveraging contactless technology like QR Codes throughout the lifecycle can provide quality, assurance, speed, and advanced reporting for all stakeholders involved.

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