If the geeks have their way, we will all soon be overwhelmed with the latest technological trend in packaging: Augmented Reality.
My first close encounter with virtual reality, this next-big-thing in packaging, came in October 2008 on one of my regular trips to Japan where, during Tokyo Pack, I was decidedly underwhelmed by the demo.
It wasn’t quite the full-on Augmented Reality job, but in the form of a strange looking pattern of square boxes printed on a chocolate box. The friendly demonstrator took a picture of it with her smart-phone and the seemingly random pattern was magically converted into a hyperlink that opened a website right there, on her phone.
A modern marvel! All it required was a smart-phone with internet connectivity and a downloaded application and a host of opportunities were promised: it could access information about the product, or the company – what it was really doing was hard to tell, because the website was in Japanese.
Having had the QR code explained to me, I then began to notice them popping up everywhere I looked. In Tokyo, such is the nature of the unfamiliar that I had not noticed them before.
QR codes appeared to be taking over the world: there were codes on just about every package in the minimart, on posters on the subway, in newspaper ads. An up-market Ginza store had QR codes on tags in the lady’s shoe department – snap the picture and you could view the colour and size range in stock. There was even a QR on the tombstone of a biker who ran out of road: snap the code to be redirected to the deceased’s personal obituary website – I somehow doubted it was a blog.
McDonald’s ran an actively promoted campaign for the Happy Meal Club: scan the QR code, register on the website and join the company’s happy club, receive offer alerts by mail or SMS when you’re in the neighbourhood of an outlet and at the counter just call up your personal QR code on your phone’s screen, pass it across the in-store OR reader to qualify for discounts and club loyalty points.
Of course as a foreigner it was all a bit of a mystery; please remember that we’re talking about 2008 back in an era when phones in the West just weren’t that smart. Apple’s iPhone had been launched a year earlier, but QR codes didn’t make it to the App store until well into 2009, and it wasn’t until later that year that Google incorporated QR codes into Android.
Typically my 2008 Microsoft Windows mobile XDA-Mini phone hadn’t a clue what to do with the image once I’d snapped it; I was still excited that the phone had automatically changed the time-zone when I turned it on at Narita airport.
Of course this brave new technology wasn’t actually very new at all. Way back in 1994, Denso Wave, a subsidiary of Toyota, came up with a unique and innovative way to track vehicles during the complex manufacturing process. A regular barcode would not do the job; it couldn’t hold enough data: a standard 1D Barcode (UPC/EAN) stores up to 30 numbers, a QR Barcode can store up to 7,089 bits of information and when encoded may be made up of four standardised types (‘modes’) of data (numeric, alphanumeric, byte/binary, or Japanese Kanji).
The use of QR codes in Japan took off due to a convergence of technologies: The mobile phone, the internet and open-source nature of the QR license. Instead of keeping the patent on the code, Denso Wave made it ‘open source’ to enable its suppliers to download QR readers and ‘writers’ to generate their own codes for auto-parts, though it did retain the word ‘QR code’ itself as a trademark. By January 1999, there was even a Japanese Industrial Standard (JIS) specifically regulating QR codes that has become an ISO Standard (ISO/IEC18004).
The Japanese have had a love affair with internet-enabled mobile phone technology from as early as 2000, with the launch of the Jphone which could not only take photos but forward them using messaging or email. Surfing the net, chatting online, checking train schedules, booking and paying for air, rail and concert tickets, were commonplace by 2004.
A chip from Sony embedded in the phone transformed it into a mobile wallet allowing direct bank account debits to be made in stores while also acting as a season ticket and a train ticket simply by passing the phone across an RFID reader, and a year later watching streaming TV and Video on the subway had transformed the phone into a mobile reality escape module. All this connectivity in a Jphone, a full seven years before the much-hyped launch of the iPhone!
So the arrival of the QR in 2007 was not quite the exciting future shock it was in the West.
Then it all quietly fizzled out! On my recent Tokyo Pack trip in October 2012, there was hardly a QR code to be seen. Certainly some posters, magazine adverts and a few packages on the shelves at Aeon supermarket still sported the occasional QR code, but generally discretely positioned and not so in-you-face as they had been four years earlier.
Even McDonalds had scaled down the Happy Meal Club loyalty rewards club.
What went wrong in technocratic Tokyo, that the QR had been relegated to the back side of the package?
Serious investigation involving questioning Japanese International Packaging Press Organisation colleagues, packaging technologists from Japan Packaging Institute and the oft quoted ‘man in the street’ (well, to be more accurate, the bloke in the bar) can be distilled into two root causes.
One (and this is the big one), the QR codes, and what they could actually do, was limited by the brains in ‘Marketing’. Given the massive amount of data that the QR was capable of storing the best they could come up with was to enable links to such exciting things as Facebook or Twitter pages or a plethora of other website pages that allow consumers to ‘like’ a product, and similar very useful stuff.
The second cause is that to have the ability read a QR Code requires the customer to download a QR Reader App before the code can be used, and then use precious chargeable-bandwidth to link to the company’s website homepage – and get what in return? Not a lot really!
So in Japan, the QR code is essentially dead, and I suspect that it will prove to be the same in most parts of the world, once the first flush of excitement of a company’s QR code launch has faded (if it hasn’t already).
While the QR held out a promise of some future world of really useful stuff, it was all too superficial for the average Japanese consumer.
Augmenting the Reality
It came with absolutely no surprise whatsoever to find myself standing in almost exactly the same spot at Tokyo Big Sight during Tokyo Pack 2012 watching a strangely familiar demo of the Next BIG Thing - a demonstration at the Toppan Printing booth of a new Augmented Reality function.
In the demo, an iPad is pointed at a Budweiser can, the camera zooms-refocuses-zooms until it locks-on to the can’s Bud logo, a little like you’d expect the rangefinder on a laser-blaster to do before zapping the target into nano-particles – but sadly, no, this not being the next step in the Japanese packaging recycling programme.
Instead, and somewhat boringly, an app in the iPad is activated, the tablet’s screen goes into greyscale for a second of two, and lo-and-behold a virtual 3-d image of a well-proportioned Japanese anime-teen in a branded Budweiser cheerleader costume appears and holding the can in two hands commences to extol the virtues of the product.
Okay, so what else does she do? Not a lot, it seems.
But, it could all have been so, so different. The QR Code on packaging could have been deployed for something really quite useful. At Tokyo Pack 2012, I had a brief conversation with Australian packaging designer, Michael Grima, who mentioned a QR project to develop standard QR codes that provide additional nutritional or health data.
“Imagine how useful a QR code could be if it were considered part of a CSR programme,” said Grima. “In a supermarket if it linked to a website, company or otherwise, that gave detailed information on the ingredients – for example for those with dietary issues, peanut allergies or heart conditions or what about all those E numbers that nobody understands? There usually isn’t enough space to put all that information on the pack, QR codes would be the perfect application.” The man has a point.
But if well-proportioned Japanese anime-teens in branded Budweiser cheerleader costumes are the sum total of the Augmented Reality vision of the future, make mine a Carlsberg.