Mobile Urban Exploration

By Will Rourk

The tiny optical reader in most mobile phone cameras will change the way you live in the big world. Object hyper-linking, also known as mobile-tagging, uses a mobile phone camera to read QR (or “quick response”) codes, a special two-dimensional graphic that can connect your phone instantly to network information. QR codes can hold alpha-numeric characters—text, phone number, e-mail addresses, SMS messages, geo-location informaiton, and—especially—URLs. The graphic itself, is a square data matrix that works much like any product’s bar code. A target graphically represents encoded information, which is scanned by a reader—the magic wand at the supermarket or your mobile device—that can make sense of it all.

Unlike bar codes, however, QR codes will impact your life outside of the store. First developed in Japan, QR codes have been affixed to buildings as large posters (“reading the city” has never been more literal), in publications and computer screens, and as lapel pins as small, discreet icons.
Widely adopted in Asia and Europe, coded graphics have been slow to catch on in the U.S. The idea of using technology to read a phyically encoded built environment has gained some purchase in the art world in recent years. The 2005 Yellow Arrow project explored new ways of exploring city spaces through mobile technologies by turning New York City into a geo-spatial web. Participants placed yellow arrow markers in public places that they found particularly engaging, The marker directed its audience—anyone taking notice of the arrows—to send an SMS text message to a number that would then reveal something interesting or particular about where they were standing.

In this way, the arrows curated a whole new experience of urban spaces and objects. QR codes are doing much the same today, but in a more instantaneous—and effective—way. The line between people and place-specific information—think museum wall text—is maintained, but with the aid of a Web browser, which has the potential to be more enriching and expressive than static signage.

What’s down the line for object hyper-linking? A virtual reality, literally.

RFID tags (radio-frequency identification) have, for some time, been replacing bar codes as the means of containing retail product information. These, too, can be used to encode urban information that would be broadcast to mobile device receivers. Another promising technology is geo-location, which uses GPS to connect people to each other based on their current locations—social networking’s likely next step, despite ongoing privacy concerns. Being in the right place could, as they say, keep you instantly connected and informed. Most of these technologies are gratis with reader applications on most major smart phones. Free code generators are also available through developers such as Kaywa, Upcode, Shotcode, and Google’s Zxing project. With these tools, anyone will be able to read the city—and write it—on the fly.

For more information about QR codes and mobile tagging technologies, please visit Will Roark’s blog.

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