The QR conundrum (sorry for putting this eyesore on our homepage)

By Richard Nieva , written on November 28, 2012

From The News Desk

Look at this thing. It's goddamn gorgeous isn't it? Staring at you like a crossword puzzle full of short words, or an impossible maze on a children's placemat at a reasonably-priced restaurant. The same reason we're apologizing for putting that QR, or quick response, image on our homepage is the same reason businesses don't want them on their billboards or magazine pages. Yes, some designers try to pretty them up, but a spade is a spade, and an ugly QR code is an ugly QR code.

As soon as QR codes -- which deliver digital information to a user, when he snaps a picture of the black and white square -- first became popular, people were already talking about how quickly they'd be gone. And when NFC -- or near field communication, which brings information to your phone when it is near another NFC chip -- entered the fray, people just as quickly started wondering how long it would take for it to kill the QR code. And now, excitement around image recognition may have settled the argument: even for someone with a horse in the QR race.

The QR code got a shot of life yesterday when the startup Scan released a well-received version 2.0 of its service. But Scan chief executive Garrett Gee doesn't seem to be paralyzed by the innovator's dilemma. He tells me he named his company "Scan," because he didn't want to be beholden to that technology forever. “It’s like in the new Batman movie. I either want to perfect the QR code, or destroy it,” he says. When asked if he's waiting for something better to come along, he says, "That's not only the hope, but the plan."

Being noncommittal to a certain type of technology is nothing new. Square has been called a transitional technology -- a placeholder until the ecosystem is ready to support a more effective method of payment. For its part, Scan has been doing quite well as one of the flag-bearers for QR codes: 25 million downloads and better integration with Facebook and Twitter. And Gee says he is not willing to jump on the NFC bandwagon so quickly. “NFC is just a baby-step better than QR. For us, we're starting to come of the opinion that, maybe we’ll just skip that altogether,” says Gee. For him, the next jump is to image recognition.

It's a space that some companies have occupied for years. And Google has advanced it with Project Glass. Toronto-based image recognition company Idee Inc. has been at it for years, and licenses its technology to companies like eBay and Kayak through a product called TinEye. The secret sauce behind image recognition is having a database of images, so when a user snaps a picture, it matches up with a database image and feeds the user the right information.

So when will image recognition supposedly be ubiquitous? She's obviously got a bias, but Idee Inc. chief executive Leila Boujnane says "within a year or two." The key is creating a large enough database, she says. "Everyone is taking pictures and uploading them everywhere now. We'll have enough assets soon," says Boujnane. She said another future task is integrating image recognition into video in a way that isn't clumsy.

For Gee, a foray into image recognition from QR codes means working to make the technology more meaningful, like adding social media options when your phone recognizes a product. "Sure, your phone can tell you that you're holding a can of Coca-Cola, but now what?" he says.

NFC will likely live on because it it's found a niche in the payment space, and not all image recognition companies -- like TinEye -- believe their technology can tackle that problem, though Gee thinks it might. But once the infrastructure catches up, image recognition could be the best way to bridge the real and digital world, especially for startups who will already have that database to work with. If so, then chalk it up as a loss for little black and white squares.

[Image courtesy Fabrice de Nola]