The smartphone has taken the old-fashioned barcode to a new level.
You may have seen them, even if you didn't know what they were. These new "quick response codes" look more like weird postage stamps, full of maze-like squares and lines.
Once they're scanned or a picture is taken of them with an iPhone, Android or BlackBerry smartphone, these barcodes can link to more product information or allow a consumer to make a purchase.
"QR codes are truly mobile," said chief marketing officer Mark Binns of Mobio Identity Systems Inc., which uses the codes in mobile marketing and mobile commerce.
"You put a QR code on a billboard and you can point your phone at it standing on the street," Binns said.
Vancouver-based Mobio has a free app for iPhone and Android phones - one is coming soon for BlackBerry smartphones - that consumers can download to scan QR codes. It's one of many.
These two-dimensional barcodes, which are now starting to show up in North America, can be used to let people enter contests, vote on the top stars in a hockey game or receive a coupon offer. You can buy coffee or order food with them, link to a video, website or a photo of a product.
They can be found on the bottom of billboards and in magazine ads or can stand alone, like the giant Calvin Klein billboards that were nothing but a huge red QR code telling consumers to "get it uncensored" that linked to a racy video.
They're just starting to make their way into TV ads, said Binns, adding that Mobio ran a contest for Global TV in British Columbia using a QR code that had viewers putting their smartphones up to their television sets to scan the barcode to participate.
Trend follower Ann Mack of JWT Intelligence believes QR codes will be routinely used in advertising to provide digital content, noting they're "hugely" popular in Japan where they were developed.
"The proliferation of smartphones and the apps culture has made it a much easier sell here in North America," Mack said from New York.
"If you do a print ad or a billboard ad, you can only say so much," she said. "It isn't necessary to write about every single feature on a product these days. Simplicity is key because of our attention spans."
But Mack cautioned that when consumers use a QR code, they don't want information overload.
"Make sure you take me to the specific product rather than drown me with information. Or make sure it's entertaining enough to keep my attention once I scan that barcode."
QR codes were originally developed by a Toyota subsidiary in 1994 to track inventory during manufacturing.
Binns sees QR codes as ideal for mobile commerce. Mobio's QR codes are used by the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars so football fans can use smartphones to order and pay for hot dogs and beer from their seats.
"It really is one-stop shopping," said Binns.
Mobio also works with the NHL's Ottawa Senators, the CFL's B.C. Lions, and a number of companies and restaurants in Vancouver.
Analyst Mark Tauschek agrees QR codes are starting to gain notice but he doesn't believe that most consumers know much about them.
"It is a breakout time for them due to increased smartphone adoption," said Tauschek, research director at Info-Tech Research in London, Ont. "It's not at a critical mass point yet."
Consumers will need to be educated, he said.
"That's really going to have to come from the advertisers or the people who want to make use of QR codes to convey information to people."