Those barcode-looking things? They're called QR codes. Here's what they do.

Have you seen those barcode-looking things recently but haven't got the slightest what they're for? After this post, you'll see how they might just end up making your life a little bit easier one day!

Scan me!

Scan me!

Many of you reading this have undoubtedly seen a QR (Quick Response) code by now (the thing pictured to the right), but there's just as much -- if not more -- confusion surrounding them today as there was a number of years ago. Well, prepare to no longer be confused by these highly-useful things that are seemingly popping up everywhere these days (and for good reason, too)!

Put simply, QR codes serve as an ultra-fast reference for something that someone can look up immediately on the spot, or at a later time. By using your cell phone and a QR code reader app, scanning a QR code might yield a Web address, name and address, phone number, email address, pre-filled text message, or some other similar data type. To give you a better visualization of how it works, consider the following 3 short scenarios:

Scenario 1: You're walking around in a town you've never been to before, collecting menus from restaurants that you're hoping to find some decent local food from. But instead of simply handing out takeaway menus, you notice many of the restaurants are providing an eco-friendly QR code for you to scan to see their menu and effectively have it with you at all times on your phone.

Scenario 2: You're out at a concert, listening to one of your favorite bands, when all of a sudden, you notice the guitarist is wearing a shirt with a giant QR code on the back of it. Being in the 7th row and knowing what a QR code is, you take out your phone so you can get a picture of it to see what he wants you to see. Lo and behold, you've just earned a secret backstage pass right there on the spot that no one else can win now because you were the first to access it!

Scenario 3: You're flying over a city about 15 minutes out from landing at your destination, when all of a sudden, you notice an incredibly massive QR code that has been painted on the top of an entire building. Once again, you take out your phone and quickly take a picture so you can see what it's all about (be it a URL, phone number, text message, or otherwise) once you've got cell service again.

Those are just a few scenarios, but there are TONS of scenarios that companies and individuals are currently utilizing QR codes for. Just the other night, I was practically inundated by QR codes while out eating dinner at a restaurant: their menu had a QR code on it so you could have a copy to go right there on the spot, the ketchup bottle on the table had a QR code on it so you could visit the manufacturer's Web site, and someone had printed out a QR code on a sheet of paper and stuck it on the mirror in the men's restroom.

Now, what do you do when you see a QR code? Well, you either need a camera or a phone with an in-built camera. If you have a phone with an in-built camera, there are plenty of QR code apps you can download from your respective app store/market that will allow you to scan a QR code and it'll show you the information contained within it. If you only have a camera, then you can simply take a picture of a QR code with which to upload later to a site like ZXing Decoder Online. Lastly, if you're interested in creating your own QR code, well, that's just about as easy as decoding one, what with online QR code generators like this one.

For as quick and convenient as QR codes are, they aren't 100% risk-free, since all kinds of data can be contained within them. Wikipedia spells it out best in their QR code risks section:

Malicious QR codes combined with a permissive reader can put a computer's contents and user's privacy at risk. They are easily created and may be affixed over legitimate QR codes. On a smartphone, the reader's many permissions may allow use of the camera, full internet access, read/write contact data, GPS, read browser history, read/write local storage, and global system changes.

Risks include linking to dangerous websites with browser exploits, enabling the microphone/camera/GPS and then streaming those feeds to a remote server, analysis of sensitive data (passwords, files, contacts, transactions), and sending email/SMS/IM messages or DDOS packets as part of a botnet, corrupting privacy settings, stealing identity, and even containing malicious logic themselves such as JavaScript or a virus. These actions may occur in the background while the user only sees the reader opening a seemingly harmless webpage.

In other words, the information waiting on the other side of a QR code might not be all roses and sunshine -- even if it's something as simple as a derogatory plain text message.

So, with all that said and now that you know everything you need to know to make use of QR codes, what are you waiting for? Start by scanning the QR code you see in the upper right-hand corner of my post (I promise it's not malicious) and see where it leads to. From there, be on the lookout for QR codes all around you as you're shopping, eating, vacationing, working, browsing, etc. Before long, they may just start making life a little more convenient for you!

-Stephen Chapman

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