Ask Gadget Dad: What Are QR Codes?

John Biggs
Good News

Every few columns, I intend to answer a burning tech question. Potential questions will include, but not be limited to, parenting-related questions like "Do I really need to buy NINJAGO Lego blocks and video games? And what is this NINJAGO anyway?" and "How the heck do these RC cars waste a 10-pack of AA batteries every week?" This week I'll answer the burning question: "What are QR codes?"

QR what?

QR codes are like bar codes that store far more information than the standard black and white UPC code found on packaging. QR codes are "two dimensional," meaning they store data across and down, unlike "one dimensional" UPC codes. They can store up to 2,600 characters but most of them store about 100 characters, enough for a web URL. Most important, however, QR codes don't need a laser reader to scan, thereby making them more accessible and usable. All you need is a phone with a camera.

In short, QR codes store a small amount of text that can be read with a camera. They could store a web address or a phone number or email address. For example, this code stores my Twitter address. I generated it here in case you want to try to make your own.

What Do I Do With These Things? 

I've seen these things pop up more and more on toy ads in magazines and posters, so here's how to use them. First, grab an app for your phone. Most of the apps work exactly the same: start the app, point your phone at the QR code, and press a button. Then your web browser should take you directly to the URL in question. Here are a few free apps to get you started:




A quick search for "QR code scanner" on any phone app store will bring up countless other examples, so you're not stuck with just these.

The most popular use for these codes is to send you to various websites related to new movies, toys, and games, hence their value to a parent. For example, some QR codes send you to a movie trailer or online game while others allow you to download software and other files. They're appearing more and more on posters, advertisements, and informational documents. Why not try using your own? Invitations could include a QR code with a map link or a baby registry while you could add them to a business card or brochure to send folks directly to your business.

Expect these things to fade away over the next few years as wireless methods of data transfer replace them, but until then, have fun!

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