QR Codes, Microsoft Tags, and NFC Tags

The longest conversation ever to take place on the National Association for Interpretation’s LinkedIn page was about QR codes, Microsoft tags, and NFC tags. These are technologies used in magazine ads, on billboards and T-shirts, in murder investigations, and in many other media that can be scanned using a smart phone to provide a link to a website or other information. In interpretive settings, they can be used to provide access to information that augments the contents of signs or exhibits.

Here’s a quick breakdown of these technologies:

QR Codes
Based on my own unscientific observation, I feel like you see QR (“Quick Response”) codes more than the other two. About a year ago, I wrote a post about them, which, if it had been an interpretive presentation, would have had the following theme: “This is what QR codes are.” (Sam Ham would be proud.) Since then, I’ve heard from a handful of interpreters about how they’re using QR codes at their sites, including this example from Friend of IBD Bob Hinkle at Cleveland Metroparks.

Cleveland Metroparks’ Lake to Lake Trail features six signs similar to these, which are made of vinyl over aluminum, so they can be replaced quickly and easily for less than a dollar each, according to Bob.

You can read QR codes with the camera on your smart phone with an app called a “QR Reader.” I use an app on my iPhone called (wait for it) QR Reader. You can create QR codes extremely easily on a number of websites called “QR Code Generators,” like the one I use called Kaywa.

One criticism of QR codes is that they’re ugly and boring (also criticisms of the IBD blog authors), but Friend of IBD Phil Sexton shared this link to 15 Beautiful and Creative QR Codes, which shows that they don’t have to be. Above are examples from that article—tags for Fillmore Silver Spring, Louis Vuitton’s mobile site, and Corkbin. The article’s author, , points out that the QR code’s “30% tolerance in readability” allows this room for creativity. (Note that Cleveland Metroparks includes their logo in the middle of their QR code.)

Microsoft Tags
Terre Dunivant of Gaia Graphics and Associates wrote a post on her blog comparing the relative merits of Microsoft Tags vs. QR Codes. Terre prefers Microsoft tags for several reasons, including that they offer even more flexibility and room for creativity than QR codes. The examples below (from Microsoft’s website) are tags for Iams, Loescher (a book publisher), and Ciara.

On the negative side, so far as I can tell, you can only create Microsoft tags by signing up for a free account on Microsoft’s website, which I assume will crash your computer. In terms of scanning Microsoft tags, I use an app called Microsoft Tag Reader on the iPhone.

NFC tags
I’ll admit that I have not used this technology. I researched NFC tags to learn more about the rumor that Brett Favre was going to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles, and I was surprised to learn that NFC, in this instance, has nothing to do with the National Football Conference, but rather stands for “Near Field Communication.”

Near Field Communication tags are the relative new kid the block—the Joey McIntyre of mobile data-sharing technology, if you will. NFC tags are different from QR codes and Microsoft tags in that they are actual pieces of hardware rather than printed codes to be scanned. Basically, you purchase and write data to tiny electronic chips, which are then able to share that data with NFC-enabled devices (like some smart phones) that come close to them. The obvious disadvantages to this technology are that you have to create the tags, and not all smart phones are equipped to accept the information. The advantage is that the transfer of data is much easier on the user’s end, provided they have an NFC-enabled phone.

This is technology to watch, but the limited number of people able to take advantage of it at the moment, in my opinion, makes it not quite ready for prime time.

As more and more people have smart phones—including noted Apple critic and new iPhone owner Shea Lewis—interpretive sites are taking advantage of these technologies. But there are questions, of course: What are the best ways to make use of this new technology from a pragmatic standpoint? (Cleveland Metroparks’ easy-switch sign is a good solution.) How do you make information contained in the codes available to those who do not have smart phones? (Note that Cleveland Metroparks has provided a website for those with no smart phone.) How will this technology change in the next six months to 10 years? (If we knew that, we’d be filthy rich.) Can you really justify calling a designated hitter a baseball player? (Clearly not.)

I’m curious to know if you’ve been using any or all of these at your site, and what sort of success you’ve had.

Clip Art Ruined Eric Bruntlett’s Triple Play

Major League Baseball has been around for more than 130 years. And in all that time, there have been only 15 unassisted triple plays (where one defensive player makes all three outs in an inning on one play). Only twice ever has an unassisted triple play ended a ballgame, including the most recent instance, August 23 of this year, when Philadelphia Phillies infielder Eric Bruntlett accomplished the feat against the New York Mets. (Click here to see video of the play.) So roughly once every six and a half decades, baseball fans have the opportunity to witness this remarkable event.

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NY Post / August 24, 2009

The day after Bruntlett’s game-ending triple play, The New York Post honored the occasion with a clip art-addled diagram that my friend Scott Rogers described as “USA Today-riffic.” When I posted the diagram to my Facebook page, it got a mixed reaction, ranging from sarcastic (“This made me feel like I was there”) to earnest (“I like it. It worked for me!”) to humiliated (“I’ve been avoiding going up stairs all day”). That last one was from a Mets fan who works for the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, downstairs from NAI.

Early in my NAI career, I wrote an article for Legacy magazine called “Why Clip Art is Evil.” I implored interpreters not to rely on generic, soulless, prefabricated images to represent their sites or organizations. I went on and on about the importance of finding or creating just the right image rather than selecting the closest fit from a preset collection. This is the problem with the Post’s triple-play diagram.

My main hang-up with the diagram is the imprecise nature of the illustrations, which amount to clip art. I wasn’t in the room, but I’d be willing to bet that the designer for the Post had access to a bank of images of baseball player silhouettes. Three of them are okay (the two baserunners and the pitcher). However, the illustration of the batter, Jeff Francoeur, makes it look like he is standing behind home plate and has just hit a line drive into the first-base dugout rather than up the middle of the field.

Even worse, Eric Bruntlett, who in a frenzied few seconds made baseball history, is illustrated in a passive crouch as if waiting for a throw, perhaps ready to tag a baserunner (also, he’s facing right field rather than home plate). It may seem nitpicky, but the diagram takes an amazing baseball moment and sucks the life out of it. A different approach or closer attention to detail could have helped maintain the sense of the moment.

I think the notion of illustrating the unusual play with a diagram is a good one. It appeals to a different learning style than the verbal description in the accompanying article and lets fans see the relative position of all of the players involved. What I object to is a national publication using images that are almost but not quite appropriate. It smacks of laziness. I think a better option would have been to use the same arrows and typographic descriptions, but with photographic images of the field and players.

NAI’s Ethan Rotman has promised to use this image in one of his workshops to see how it might have been done differently. I’ll be sure to report back on what he comes up with.