QR Codes. They're the peculiar looking, square matrix codes you see on everything from concert posters to soup cans. If you stumble down Sixth Street during South by Southwest, you'll probably see variations of QR code stickers slapped onto street poles, bathroom stalls, and skateboards.
But what is the real use of QR codes - and are people actually using them?
Originally designed for automotive tracking in Japan, "Quick response" codes have been around for over 20 years. They have since evolved into a popular marketing tool, but we still haven't found a way to make them useful to the mainstream in the US.
Within the last year, Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, Spotify, and Twitter have all released their own "code generator" tools that, when scanned, will send fans directly to your social media or streaming platform. The only problem is, these codes are proprietary to each service and only scan within that respective app.
If it weren't already hard enough to get people to scan QR codes (only 2% claim to scan them on a regular basis), we now have a fragmented market of codes across physical and digital spaces, and there's no universal app to scan them all.
Snapchat's acquisition of Scan.Me in 2014 now allows the Snapchat app to act as a universal QR code scanner, but this still excludes Spotify, Shazam, and Messenger codes. However, you can create your own codes within Snapchat, and lead to the URL of your choice.
For me, opening Snapchat to scan a Snapcode which then sends me to Spotify is a counter-intuitive and annoying process to discover music.
Shazam has also integrated QR scanning into their app, and is now experimenting with augmented reality when certain Shazam Codes are scanned. My gut tells me we are years off from this being a useful (and widely adopted) technology, but QR may be the gateway to useful AR.
For what it's worth, Apple recently announced that their upcoming iOS 11 software will have QR scanning built right into the camera app, meaning QR codes are here to stay. This will ultimately open the category up to millions of new users, but the question remains: will they care?
My one glimmer of hope is to recall the rise of the gif, a 30 year old file format that finally found its true potential.