QR codes come to the 'hood

Scanning and location technologies turn cell phone into a universal portal

As I was out walking the dog today, I noticed that the "For Sale" sign in front of the house a few doors down had acquired a new and unusual enhancement: a huge Rorschach inkblot-looking thingamajig. It took me a moment to realize that what appeared to be "artwork" was, in fact, a QR, or "quick response," code.

QR codes - codes that cell phones outfitted with QR code readers can read - let you quickly scan and store rich information. In this case, the code was for a URL containing information about the home's square footage, number of bedrooms and baths, asking price, indoor and outdoor photos and so forth. It basically replaced those hard-copy fact sheets in the plastic box outside the residence.

We usually hear about QR codes and/or NFC (near-field communications, which uses embedded chips instead of codes) being used by retailers. One incentive is to deter shoppers from coming into a store, viewing, handling and testing comparative products and then ordering the one they want at the best price they can find on the Web. Rather, a user who "checks in" to a store via cell phone might get some promotional benefit such as a discount for buying then and there.

Many Android, Nokia and Blackberry handsets come with QR code readers pre-installed, and there's a free QR reader app from Apple for the iPhone.

NFC is just as likely to be used and is being embraced by Google and chipmaker Broadcom, which acquired NFC company Innovision Research & Technology last year. And Juniper Research forecasts that one in every six mobile users worldwide will have an NFC-enabled phone by 2014, when it expects NFC to be a $633 billion market.

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