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CNN testing QR codes on TV

20 Mar

CNN began testing QR codes on air this weekend to direct people to a site where they can help Japanese earthquake and tsunami victims.

CNN QR code

The code was easy to scan, even without pausing the broadcast. It worked fine from across the room. Just launch a barcode scanner and it will decode the URL and give you the option to open it in the browser. If you have a scanner, you can scan it off the image above. If not, click to go to the Impact Your World mobile site.

This is a great implementation of the often over-hyped QR-code technology. Print ads have occasionally featured QR codes which take you to an advertiser’s URL.

Some other applications I’d like to see:

  • In movie trailers. Scan it and it gets added to your movies to see list, possibly with a calendar entry dropped on the release date. Or an option to add to your Netflix queue for movies that are less interesting.
  • In TV promos. Scan it and it gets added to your recordings list. (The better implementation would be that the DVR itself would recognize a tag and prompt you.)
  • In TV commercials and on billboards. Scan to go to the advertiser’s site.
  • On CNN. Scan to get more information on a story.

QR-codes have a number of advantages over other technologies. They are free to generate, don’t require any hardware beyond a camera, hold more data than a standard bar code, are easy to replicate, work across a distance and have a built-in call-to-action (scan me!). QR-codes can also hold structured data; scanning the QR code on Rakeshagrawal.com will load up my contact information.

But it’s not the ultimate technology for every application. As much as people in the technology industry like to claim that one technology will take everything, that rarely happens.

Artwork at MoMA scanned with Google Goggles

Artwork at MoMA scanned with Google Goggles. In this case, it was a scan of a picture of the painting on flickr.

Here are some other applications where other technologies work just as well or better.

  • Identifying artwork. Many paintings in the MoMA’s collection can be identified just by taking a picture of it with Google Goggles. Let’s face it, QR codes are ugly. They’re designed to be easily readable by machines, not to be pretty. I should point out that the wacky kids in Dubai are trying to turn them into architecture with a QR-code hotel. Still, it’s not my taste in architecture.
  • Payments. Because they are easy to reproduce, QR codes (and bar codes in general) aren’t well suited for payment applications. They only work when you don’t really care about security.
  • Scanning books or products. One discussion that came up recently was using QR codes in stores like Barnes & Noble to identify whether a book is available in nook format. That’s overkill — you can do this perfectly well with the bar code already printed on the book. Heck, you can take a picture of the cover and that’ll work.
  • Print ads. URLs can be detected with simple OCR software. No need to clutter your creative with an ugly QR code. The key here is to use a simple font against a high contrast background and leave space around it. That’s a good practice anyway to ensure that human eyes can read it.
  • Checking in to a business. WiFi and GPS positioning do a reasonably good job of this without requiring businesses to do any extra work. This could be improved, but it works OK.
Plain text URLs work just fine in Google Goggles.

Plain text URLs work just fine in Google Goggles.

Mobile and the improving user interface

30 Sep
The zero-click experience in the Happy Hours app.

The zero-click experience in the Happy Hours app.

Some of the best user interfaces being created today are on mobile devices. I often find myself reaching for my cell phone instead of my laptop when I need a hit of information. Common tasks such as looking up a business, buying movie tickets or checking email are often faster on mobile devices.

The best example of this is the Happy Hours app. Launch the app and after a few seconds it will show you the nearest happy hour specials sorted by distance that are going on right now. No input required.

Why are mobile interfaces better?

  • Access to sensors such as GPS. The Happy Hours app on my phone knows where I’m at. On the Web, at best it can guess what city I’m in.
  • Limited screen real estate. People often feel the need to fill whitespace. Nothing else to put there? How about some more remnant ads? With mobile, there is less whitespace to fill.
  • No SEO. The app itself doesn’t have to be filled with links for search engine crawlers. At least half of the GoTime.com home page (the company behind the Happy Hours app) is links for crawlers.

United's mobile check in not ready for takeoff

4 Jul

On my last trip, I had the opportunity to try United’s mobile check-in and mobile boarding passes. The promise is paper-free check in. It sounds really great, but it’s not quite there. Partly it’s due to United’s horrible user interface, partly the newness that gate agents aren’t accustomed to it.

The user interface rarely misses an opportunity to add extra steps.

  • When online check-in opens up, United sends you an email reminding you to check in. But clicking on the link in the email takes you to the full browser version. (It should automatically redirect you to the corresponding page on the mobile site if you’re on a mobile browser.)
  • When you go to http://mobile.united.com, you have to enter your confirmation number (who remembers these?), e-ticket number (ditto), Mileage Plus number (I don’t remember it despite being a top tier flier for years) or email address (long to type). There’s no way to just cookie your email address or MP number for all future check ins.
  • You’re presented with upsells, including the ridiculously overpriced Award Accelerator. (No way to say “I never ever want this.”)
  • After you finally check in, you’d think you get a boarding pass. But now you have to enter an email address to send the boarding pass to. (Never mind that you just logged into your account with an email address; it’s not prepopulated.)
  • You’d think, “OK, now, I’ll get an email with the boarding pass.” Nope. You get an email for each segment. Neither of which contains a boarding pass, but a link to a boarding pass.
  • Instead of using one link tied to your record, there is a link for each flight. If you click on the email for the wrong flight, you can’t just flip to the other flight. You have to go back and open a different email.
  • When you finally get to the boarding pass, you see a 2D bar code read by the scanner, along with your flight and seat information in text.

After doing all of this, I went to the airport without any paper. First step: security. The TSA agent looks at my ID and phone to compare names. He then has me hold my phone over a reader. It beeps and lights up in green. Good to go. At the gate, I hold my phone over the reader. Beep. Green. Board.

At the gate for my connection in Denver, I get paged because the agent wanted me to swap seats with someone else. She asks for my boarding pass. When I say I’ve got a mobile one, she prints out a boarding pass with a new seat assignment. Being a geek, I refresh the screen and see that it shows the new seat and ditch the paper. Unfortunately it doesn’t scan and she has to board me manually.

Leaving SFO, I had to standby for an earlier flight because of weather. Although the boarding pass initially showed my standby status, somewhere along the way that disappeared. (Causing me to panic and race to the big screens in the gate area to verify that I was still on the list.) When I cleared standby, the agent called me up and issued a paper boarding pass. The link I had showed no boarding pass.

In a future ideal world, my phone would beep when I cleared the standby list, I’d click to accept and the screen would show the updated boarding pass. It would free up the mob around the gate, let me get a drink or food and get the plane out faster.

In Denver, my original mobile boarding pass was still valid. It took some fiddling to get it to scan. I thought 2-D bar codes could be held in any direction, but that didn’t seem to be the case.

Note that although the boarding pass is generated dynamically, the information is static. If your flight is delayed, you won’t see that reflected. You’ll have to go back to http://mobile.united.com and enter your flight information. It also self destructs after a flight, so if you need documentation for business purposes or making sure you get your frequent flier miles, you might want to stick with paper. (In theory, it shouldn’t be needed for miles purposes, but I don’t like to rely on theory when it comes to airlines.)

More on: airlines

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