Can Mobile Visual Search and QR Codes Coexist?

(originally posted March 2012, contributing blogger)

Quick Response codes, more commonly known as QR codes, were first developed by the automobile industry to help track and identify parts. With the development of mobile devices with high-resolution cameras and internet capabilities, marketers and advertisers began to see a use for QR codes as well. By scanning the code with an appropriate application, users could be directed to mobile sites or landing pages and given access to exclusive online content. Soon, QR codes started popping up on everything from billboards and product packages to more creative mediums such as hairstyles and rooftops. Unfortunately, despite their inclusion in many marketing strategies, QR codes have been slow to catch on with the general public.

According to a study conducted by ComScore in June of last year, less than 7% of mobile device owners scanned a QR code. There are a number of problems associated with this technology that have factored into its slow adoption. First and foremost, actually scanning the code takes some effort. A scanning application must be downloaded onto the users device. Then, the app must be found and opened. With a steady hand, the user needs to take a picture of the code. Finally, the user is directed to the intended content. While this whole process doesn’t take more than a minute, it requires the user put whatever else they’re doing on hold. Considering more and more QR codes are showing up on moving targets, such as buses and roadside billboards, this whole process just seems flawed. Besides usability, there are security risks as well. Since QR codes are simply pixilated squares, its nearly impossible to spot a fake. Unscrupulous hackers can manipulate the codes or complete replace them with content that will infect a user’s device with a Trojan horse or virus that can steal their data or put their privacy at risk. The basic concept of a QR code, a scannable image that directs users to online content, is a great one. However, the current model just doesn’t cut it.

MVS (mobile visual search) is a promising alternative. After initially downloading the application, users can simply take a picture using their preferred camera app. The MVS app will automatically analyze the image and provide more information or direct the user to specialized content, such as videos, mobile links, discounts, or options to purchase. MVS works very well with logos and labels. However, applications such as Google Goggles are making it possible to perform an image search based on photos of buildings, books, DVDs, and even bottles of wine.

Google Goggles in Action

Marketers are already exploring the benefits of this technology. MVS integrates well with gamification, allowing companies to easily create contests related to taking pictures of specific products or logos. There is also a strong social component since MVS can be easily linked to social networks, allowing users to seamlessly share their photos and rewards. Using pictures instead of abstract pixels makes MVS more secure as well because hackers cannot hide malicious content within the image.

MVS is definitely better than QR codes when it comes to accomplishing certain things. However, that doesn’t mean QR codes are obsolete. Certain businesses are still using them with remarkable success. The restaurant industry is a great example. Have you ever been out for a meal and excitedly ordered a dish that sounded great on the menu, only to be disappointed when it was brought to the table because it didn’t look like you had expected? Certain eateries are now including QR codes on the menu that link to images of the dish. Guests will no longer be surprised when their meal is delivered and restaurants can sell more of their expensive dishes by wowing diners with presentation.

As smartphones and cameras become more powerful, the scope of MVS is sure to expand. With some improvements to design and strategy, QR codes have the potential to really catch on with consumers. But will they? Can QR codes and MVS coexist? Or are QR codes on their way out as MVS becomes more sophisticated? Let us know what you think in the comments!