NFC Business Cards

NFC business card from Oomph!It was over 5 years ago that I first put a large QR Code on the back of my business cards and it was an instant success but not because it was immediately scanned. It was a success because it started a conversation, a conversation that would usually interest and often mildly impress potential clients. Mostly I would just demonstrate how it worked but those that had smartphones would want to download a scanning app and try it for themselves. More often than not they would ask for a couple of extra cards so they could give them to colleagues.

That is all history because now we have Near Field Communication (NFC) and an NFC business card works almost as well. I say almost because if you are showing it off to one of the 50% of the population who have iPhones they are of course unable to scan it for themselves because the iPhone is not NFC enabled. Not wanting to solicit a feeling of inadequacy in iPhone owning potential clients I have developed a simple strategy. “Do you have an iPhone or an Android phone?” I ask. If the answer is “Android” then I hand over a NFC card and the conversation can begin. If the answer is “iPhone” then they are given a conventional card. Sometimes the iPhone owning potential client will say “Why do you ask?” and upon being told will ask to see one. That’s OK because you know the potential client is interested in the technology and you can take it from there.

Other side of an NFC business card from Oomph!Sourcing high quality NFC business cards has not always been easy but I am pleased to say that I have found an excellent new source, Oomph! based in Liphook, UK. They first came to my attention when I read that they had developed a hotel key card that if the guest got lost in London they could just tap their card and Google Maps will give them directions back to their hotel. While they are waiting for the iPhone 6, iPhone users would have to ask a local for the route back to the hotel 🙂

If you look at the prices, particularly for small quantities, NFC business cards may seem expensive but believe me it’s a small price to pay for giving a potential client a good first impression.

Use A Google Short URL In A QR Code And Get Sued

It’s a story you couldn’t make up. Five months ago I wrote about the relentless decline of Neomedia, the only publicly quoted company in the QR Code space. Since then their stock price has fallen by a further 90% but they have stepped up their activity as a patent troll.

Companies such as Taco Bell, Bed Bath & Beyond, Wendy’s and a few others are all in the process of being sued by Neomedia for Patent Infringement. In essence Neomedia’s case is that these companies “By making and/or using QR Codes that indirectly link to a webserver” are infringing US Patent 6,199,048 “System and method for automatic access of a remote computer over a network” and US Patent 8,131,597 “System and method for using an ordinary article of commerce to access a remote computer”.

Last week Neomedia sued North America’s largest arts and crafts specialty retailer Michaels Stores but the action has a novel twist. Here are paragraphs 22 and 23 of Neomedia’s submission/evidence which has the image (including the bubble) on the left:

22. QR Code advertisements and/or product packaging used by Michaels are examples of machine-readable codes that enable a user device to connect with a content server over the Internet by scanning a machine-readable code encoded with an index that is sent to a server and used to lookup the URL of the content server, which is then returned to the user device to enable it to connect with the content server.

23. As one example, the following QR Code enables a user device to communicate the index to the server “http://goo.gl” to obtain the URL “http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=Qtg9U3IVaCA&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DQtg9U3IVaCA” of the content server.

This is a mistake because the URL in the image actually resolves to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qtg9U3lVaCA but the QR Code is indeed encoded with a Google short URL http://goo.gl/wnhYS. It is of course the short URL that is being claimed by Neomedia to be the “indirect link”. So it would appear that if you use a Google short URL in a QR Code you are, as far as Neomedia is concerned, infringing their patents. In fact you don’t even need to use your own server, in this case the shortener and the video both reside on Google servers.

Google actively encourages the use of their short URLs in QR Codes by generating one for you each time you use the service. Maybe Michaels Stores should sue Google for not warning them that by using this service they were in potential violation of two patents 🙂

Joking aside it would be interesting to see Google become a party to this action because they have the resources to defend Neomedia’s claims. In my opinion (but I am not a lawyer) and the opinion of others in the business, Neomedia’s claims are unlikely to be successful when fully tested in a court of law. SpyderLynk was similarly sued by Neomedia last year but a settlement was reached when SpyderLynk agreed to licence the patents. Nicole Skogg, founder and CEO of SpyderLynk was quoted as saying that the her company doesn’t believe it infringed Neomedia’s patents but the cost of defending itself in court would have far exceeded the cost of licensing the technology.

I had a few other thoughts while writing this post. The action was filed last week but the ad produced in evidence was for Valentine’s Day 2011 a full 2 years and 4 months previously, which seems a large gap before deciding to go to court. Also the image with the bubble, produced in evidence, was created by Courtney Engle on Apr 15, 2011 and I wonder if Neomedia asked his permission to reproduce it. Lastly, presumably Neomedia believes that using not only goo.gl but TinyURL, bitly or any other shortener in a QR Code infringes their patents.

QR Codes, Viewpoints And Curved Surfaces

About the author: Patrick Scheibe is head of the image processing core unit at the Translational Centre for Regenerative Medicine (TRM) Leipzig. Beside working in medical image processing he loves interesting problems, is an enthusiastic user of Wolfram Mathematica and an active member of mathematica.stackexchange.com

When I come across QR Codes they are usually printed in a magazine or put as a sticker on objects. One thing they all have in common is that they are flat squares or rectangles and that you have to scan them from a direct view. This raises the questions what if you cannot ensure that the user has a direct view onto the QR Code or even worse, if you don’t have a flat surface for the Code sticker? A solution to the latter question could have some nice practical applications in the real world. You could for example put QR Codes on shopping cart handles or even inside a cup, of course on the curved surface and not on the bottom which would be trivial 🙂

Flat surfaces from a different angle

To work out a solution for curved surfaces let us evaluate the situation for flat surfaces first.

PlaneWe start with a very simple example. The image on the left shows a plane viewed from some arbitrary point. Our intuition tells us instantly that this looks like a square on the floor, although if you take a ruler and measure the sides you’ll find out that all sides have different lengths while they should be equal if it really was a square.

If you put now a QR Code on this plane and try to scan it from the image’s view point, it is most likely that this will fail. Common sense tells us that the reason is simple: We are viewing this plane from the wrong perspective. A view from the top of the plane would be more appropriate.

On closer inspection you might become aware that you are currently reading on a flat 2D screen and most likely you’re having the best direct view onto it right now. What you see is and was never a 3D plane, it is the illusion of a plane in 3D space. The only thing we really have is the 3D definition of the plane and an approach to draw this onto your screen so that you have the feeling you are viewing an image of a 3D scene.

Plane image with QRThis process of creating a 2D image from a 3D scene is called Perspective Projection and it provides us with something very important: It assigns each 3D point of the scene a 2D point on our monitor. What if we could reverse this process and calculate a 3D point on the plane for some arbitrary point on the screen? With this we could easily glue a real (2D) QR Code to our monitor and calculate the corresponding points on the plane.

The image on the left shows exactly such a setting containing the same 3D plane scene as before but additionally, the image includes a QR Code which looks like it was glued to your screen.

Now imagine you would follow each black pixel of the QR Code through the virtual 3D scene until it hits the plane. You could paint the plane black at those points and you would get a projection of this QR Code onto the plane. This would create the illusion of the QR Code being upright in front of you while in reality it is drawn on the plane.

Printed QR Code on planeActually, this is exactly how I created this image because what really is depicted in the above image is a warped QR Code drawn on the plane which only looks as it would be upright on your screen’s surface. If you don’t believe me you should look at this.

If you are still suspicious, because you think I tricked you into something, then there is an easy solution: try it yourself. The projection of the QR Code is just an image which can be printed. You should ensure that you leave the aspect ratio of the image intact when you print it, but otherwise you just have to scan the QR Code from about the same view as in the 3D plane image above.

 

Extension for curved surfaces

Cup View 1If you have followed the article until here you might ask the question why this should be restricted to planes? Basically we did nothing more than following QR Code pixels through the 3D scene until we hit an object. Be it a plane or something else. Therefore, exactly the same approach can be used for curved surfaces like a cylinder. The difference between a simple plane and something curved is, that it might be harder to get the 3D points of the surface because that we have given the 3D points of the surface is a fact we simply assumed until now.

Without going into detail, for many curved surfaces such a definition is available and even if it is not, then there are other approaches which could be used. The calculation of the 3D points of a cylinder and therefore doing the QR Code projection is quite easy and will serve as example because it opens us the opportunity to create scannable QR Codes for cups, shopping cart handles, pens and more. Since the outside of cups is very often heavily printed, why not put a QR Code on the inside?

Cup View 2In the image on the left you can take a look on the flat printed sheet of paper. This reveals that the QR Code is indeed more warped than the one of the first example and is impossible to scan when laid out flat. If you want, you can try this example for yourself too. Take a cup and measure its inner diameter d with a ruler. Calculate the circumference of the corresponding circle by d*3.14 and print the image with exactly this width in landscape. After cutting it along the grey frame of the image, the paper strip should fit more or less perfectly inside your cup.

 

Roll View 2Another example shows that even quite unusual viewpoints can be achieved with this technique. Here, the correct viewpoint is not obvious to find, since the QR Code on the paper roll is heavily distorted and leaves users unfamiliar with the approach with no clue what to do.

 

Roll View 1The situation clears up when viewed from the correct angle:

When you click on the image to see a larger version, you may notice that I haven’t put much effort in taking the photo from the perfect viewpoint. Nevertheless, the QR Code can be scanned easily.

 

Practical Considerations

Although in theory a lot of things are possible, some practical considerations should be discussed. The first thing you should think about is, that if you are really going to print a QR code and glue it onto the surface, you have to be able to affix it flat onto the curved surface. For the round part of a cylinder this is no problem as depicted in the last images, but if you ever tried to wrap a ball into a sheet of paper, you recognize that this is not possible. Therefore, QR Code stickers will not work in all situations.

Another consideration is the viewpoint. When someone sees one of the usual squared QR Codes, it’s quite obvious to him that this has to be scanned from a direct view. Finding the right viewpoint for a heavily transformed Code is neither easy nor obvious for the layman. Therefore, if you are going to use the described technique, you should ensure that the user has no other option than scanning it from the right angle. A good example is the image of the cup above, which is pretty easy to scan, because the viewpoint from which you see the QR Code completely is close to the perfect angle and should work with most scanning devices.

DOFOne crucial point which needs consideration is the scanning device itself. Mostly this will be a smart phone which uses the built-in camera. Depending on the optical system of the camera, the view angle and the distance to the photographed QR Code it might not be possible to get the QR Code acceptably sharp.

This is called depth of field and for very extreme perspectives it might not be possible the get a sharp image of the whole QR Code which prevents it from being scanned.

In summary one can say that we have seen it is possible to create the illusion of an upright QR Code for perspectives other than the direct view. Furthermore, this approach can be extended to work for curved surfaces as well. If this technique can be used in real life remains to be seen, but there are clearly situations where transformed QR Code would open new opportunities.

Further reading

The purpose of this article was to explain the approach of QR Code transformation in an understandable way, as far as possible. Therefore, I used neither formula nor did I give source code which makes it impossible to use the method yourself. If you want to know the details of the approach, I hope the following links give you a start:

  • The most important resource is probably my answer to the question QR Code in shopping cart handle on Mathematica.stackexchange.com. In the answer there I give a detailed explanation how the approach can be implemented using Wolfram Mathematica and I provide functions for putting QR Codes on shopping cart handles.
  • For explanations about the required mathematics, you can start reading on Wikipedia to get a first overview. There you find detailed information about 3D projections, camera projections and homogeneous coordinates which are used in computer graphics to express all kinds of transformations easily.
  • A nice reference to computer graphics using OpenGL is the so-called Red Book which gives good explanations about viewing transformations or the camera model in chapter 3.

QR Codes And Forms

QR Code to report anti-social behaviour in GloucesterAccording to local newspaper The Citizen QR Codes are now being used to combat anti-social behaviour (ASB) in the City of Gloucester. The QR Code is linked directly to a form where people can report incidents of ASB and the code will be used on letters mailed to residents of the whole county. The originator of the project said: “I don’t think anyone else in the country is using a QR Code in the same way we are, but I don’t know why not”. Well there is an answer to that question – it’s because the form you are using (see screenshot below) will never be completed by anyone using a smartphone. Suggestion – before implementing a mobile form please read UX designer Robert Brauer’s excellent “Removing Stumbling Blocks In Mobile Forms“.

Screenshot of the ASB reporting form

Designer QR Codes? The Jury Is Still Out….

Designer QR Code for 2d-code websiteAnyone who has run successful QR Code campaigns will tell you that the most important non-technical factor for success is the perceived value to the target audience of the reward. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that “scan for free beer” will outperform “scan for terms and conditions”. In fact this factor is such an important contributor to success that some will even argue that you can forget everything else.

There are of course though many lesser factors and one school of thought claims that for any given campaign a designer QR Code will outperform a standard black and white code. This claim is made without any real evidence and what little evidence is available is either anecdotal or from an unpublished study (probably unpublished for a very good reason).

Other experienced marketers will claim that a black and white QR Code is instantly recognizable and for any given campaign will be scanned more often than a designer QR Code that looks like a puzzling work of art to the consumer. This is also a claim made without any real evidence. The truth is that until a reputable institution conducts a well controlled and peer reviewed study we will not know for certain if either view is correct and if it is, under what circumstances and by how much.

Meanwhile Ohio University AIDC Lab have published a white paper version of the results of a designer QR Code “scanability” study (prior to publishing the full version of the study later this summer).

The research consisted of a simple online survey in which participants were asked to say if they were able to successfully scan a series of different designer QR Codes. There were 21 designer QR Codes with varying degrees of distortion and 1 standard black and white QR Code as a control. Over 200 responses were collected of which 166 participants actually completed the survey. Data from incomplete surveys was added to the data pool resulting in instances were some images had more data collected then others.

For each designer QR Code, the overall percentage of successful reads was calculated, as was a breakdown of the successful read rate for each operating system.

The results were grouped by cell phone brand and model and successful read rates (the percent of people who said they could scan a given symbol) were calculated for each group. For each designer QR Code the overall percentage of successful reads was calculated, as was a breakdown of the successful read rate for each operating system.

The principle result showed the read rates for the designer QR Codes ranged from 9.6% to 88.6% with an average of 61.5%. The implication of this was that at best 11% of the target audience will not be able to read the designer QR Code.

There are at least two serious problems with this study in my opinion. Consumers mostly scan QR Codes from print media not from screens. Of course scanning designer QR Codes in print media is not without its potential problems, ambient light, print quality, paper gloss etc., etc. However scanning from screens presents a whole different set of possible problems, screen contrast, screen brightness, RGB color settings, gamma correction etc., all of which will vary from screen to screen. I think there is a danger that the results of this study may be thought to apply to designer QR Codes in print media when clearly they do not.

Secondly because of the small number of participants the specific scanning app used was an uncontrolled variable. As there are probably ten times as many different apps in existence as there were participants in the study it is quite likely that the differences in the quality of the app used is of greater significance than the differences between the designer QR Codes.

However the author concludes: The thought that the reader needs to leave with is not “will it scan” but “how many people can I safely alienate?” Because, as this research has shown, any given designer QR Code will probably scan for someone – but not necessarily for the intended audience.

In practice the author’s conclusion may or may not be correct but in my opinion this study should not convince anyone either way. Designer QR Codes? The jury is still out….