QR isn’t an end, it’s a means

QR seems to have taken on a bit of a life of its own over the past few weeks. Not only have I seen far more of the codes in the wild, but there seems to be many more people writing about it, many more news articles – and also (which is nice) – lots of people emailing me to ask how they can “do QR”.

Google Trends graph for "QR"

QR is a great technology. Actually, no – it’s an ok-ish technology. The more important thing is that the awareness means gains in popularity, which in turn means more people will know what a QR code is, how to use it – and also make them aware of some of the foibles. As with anything, this isn’t about how awesome the technology is. Many, many geeky people will tell you QR is crap – which in some ways it is per se – but the important thing is market penetration, expectation, device support – and (most importantly), the content experiences which underly it.

Underlying the concept of QR though is something rather more important, which I think many people miss in their rush to play with the latest and greatest thing. The important thing is this: QR is a way of poking the digital world into the real world. In a way, QR is simply one technology in a line of technologies that does this. Remember the first time you saw a URL on a piece of print advertising? That was digital poking into real, albeit in a slightly crap way. Then bluetooth. Now QR.

Ultimately, the concept is the same in each of these cases: put a marker in the real world which allows your audiences to connect with content in the virtual world.

The technology with which you do this can be agnostic. This year it might be QR. Next it might be NFC or AR. The following – who knows, image recognition / hyper-accurate GPS / whatever. The facts remain the same:

First: People have to have a desire to engage with the marker in the first place. Why would you go to the effort of scanning a QR code with no knowledge of what that code might provide for you? Nina Simon just recently blogged about QR Codes and Visitor Motivation which asks this question. The cost curve – as always – has to balance: the value that your user gets out must be greater than the effort that they have to put in – and (almost more important), you have to make this value clear before they scan.

Second: A proportion of people will never take part / have the technology to take part. QR scanning (or – even more so – NFC or whatever the next big thing is) will be a niche activity for the foreseeable future. Bear in mind that not only does your user have to have a QR code reader installed, they also need the right kind of phone, an internet connection at the point of scan AND a contract with their provider that lets them use this connection. These things are becoming more real, but it is by no means a given yet.

Third – and possibly the most important – the content that you deliver should add something significant to their experience. This is tied to the first point. Here’s a banner I snapped when I was in London recently:

UCL zoology QR code

If you scan this you get a link to the UCL Zoology Museum (and ironically, out of shot to the left is the URL that the QR code sends you to..). From a user experience perspective, I bet you 50p I can get my smartphone out, type in the url and be looking at the relevant content quicker than you can boot up a QR app, scan and open.

In this instance, you do actually end up at a mobile-friendly site and some interesting links to QR technologies in use at UCL – which is fantastic. But the use case and motivation aren’t really articulated in the physical world.

Finally – you can easily put some measures in place to track usage, and use this to inform future activity. Here’s another example, this time from the British Library:

British Library QR

If you follow this link, you’ll find it goes to http://www.bl.uk/sciencefiction. The problem with this is that the URL is the same one as is being used on the poster, around the web and in all their other marketing. So when it comes to evaluating the use of QR – and whether it has been successful as a means to pull in new visitors – my suspicion is the BL won’t have any idea how to separate out these clicks from any of the others.

The simple solution to this is to use something like bit.ly and create a unique URL which is specifically for this QR code. More advanced techniques might include things like appending a string to the end of the URL (for example www.bl.uk/sciencefiction?source=qr) – or using Google Analytics “campaigns” to track these.

(Note that you could also get even more clever by having separate unique QR codes for separate advertising zones or even for separate posters – imagine the impact of being able to track which posters or areas have been most successful…now that’s cool use of a technology…)

Coming back to the beginning of this post – the overriding point here is that QR, and many other technologies similar to it, provide a very exciting way of bringing digital content into the real world. With some upfront thinking, genuinely interesting content can be delivered in this way and users can be made to engage. As ever, though, it isn’t about the technology but about the use, motiviation and content which lies behind the technology. These are the things that count.

“Activate the world” (or: what “mobile” really means)

I’m talking at the CETIS conference next week on “Next Generation Content” and as with all my recent talks, I’ve done a mindmap to help me structure my thoughts…

Here’s the basic premise: “mobile” isn’t just “designing for mobile devices” but goes much deeper. We need to start thinking about what mobile means from a user experience perspective, from a privacy perspective and from a product design perspective.

When internet-connected devices (all 5 billion-ish of them) start becoming the norm, how does this change our lives?

Click the image for a bigger version version. It helps.

Urban Augmented Reality: Q&A

Some time ago, Jacco Ouwerkerk contacted me having seen the interview I did with the Museum of London. He directed me towards a hugely exciting Augmented Reality application called UAR – “Urban Augmented Reality” which launched in the Netherlands in June 2010.

Here’s what we talked about.

Q: Please introduce yourself, and tell us about your involvement with the project

I’m Jacco Ouwerkerk, interactive concepter at IN10 Communication, a creative agency that creates interactive brand, museum and city communication. I’ve been responsible for developing ‘open museum concepts’ like Urban Augmented Reality (UAR) for the Netherlands Architecture institute (NAi). The Netherlands Architecture Institute is a museum, archive, library and platform that wants to get people of all ages involved in architecture.

I’ve been working on the UAR project since the start in 2009 and I’m responsible for the concept development, interaction design and the project management.

Q: What is the project / what does it do?

Urban Augmented Reality (UAR) is the world’s first mobile architecture application featuring augmented reality and 3D models. With UAR you can see the past and the future (things that aren’t even there yet..) of the built environment on your iPhone and Android smartphone. The NAi has set itself an incredible challenge by making the Netherlands the first country in the world to have its entire architecture viewable in augmented reality.

Rotterdam is the first city that is available in UAR. Rotterdam is famous for its modern architecture, but let’s not forget the past. Rotterdam doesn’t have many historical architecture left due to the bombardment during WWII, but the UAR makes it all visible again. UAR makes it able to see alternative designs of buildings in their real environment. Or get a sneak preview on the new Rotterdam Central Station.

Later this year Amsterdam, Utrecht and The Hague will follow.

Q: You chose Augmented Reality as your technology of choice. Can you tell us how you went about making this choice, and why you think it works best for you?

Mid 2009 Ferry Piekart, curator UAR from NAi, invited us for a brainstorm meeting at the NAi. He wanted us to come up with an idea how they could be a museum outside the museum walls. This is because architecture is best experienced in and around the architecture itself. Also, NAi will be closed for months because of construction activities. Therefore there had to be an alternative for NAi to share its enormous collection to the public.

At that moment I was thesis supervisor of Maurice Melchers on the subject of Augmented Reality. We were looking for relevant Augmented Reality concepts that could surpass the more gimmicky concepts that we found on the internet at that time. We concluded that AR could very well be used to view architecture.

In june 2009 we started researching the possibilities of AR on the smartphone in combination with interactive tours. At the same time Layar launched their Augmented Reality browser. We contacted them and soon we started a partnership to develop the Urban Augmented Reality application with 3D models. There was a lot of enthusiasm among the participants in this project: NAi, Layar and IN10.

Q: Tell us about the process you went through to build the app?

Our goal was to develop a stand-alone (native) smartphone application that could be accessed by as many people as possible. We chose to develop an application for the iPhone and the Android platform, in our opinion the two most relevant platforms to launch our application on. After researching the possibilities we came to the conclusion that we had to develop a web based app to make it easier to show content on both platforms, (multi platform) in stand alone apps. The content is also available in the Layar browser.

Our main goal was to create a maximal user experience: easy to use, with relevant information and optimised mobile content. User experience design for Augmented Reality is new. For the AR view we had to design with the Layar AR possibilities but also added some features. For example; a switch between the different stages of AR: past and present. At the same point we got the feeling we were finally designing our childhood dream: a time machine!

In the application you get all sorts of extra information about architectural projects, architect biographies, sketches, drawings, environments and an overview of the process of the realisation of the projects. The NAi spent lots of time selecting projects out of world’s largest architecture collection and preparing texts and images ready for a mobile context.

With UAR we tried to bring the ideas and stories in architecture to life by adding audio tours within themes and special ‘famous’ guides who tell you about the buildings surrounding you. This feature will be available in the upcoming update.

Testing UAR was surreal! We spent hours wandering in the city of Rotterdam looking through mobile phones: sometimes the spots were very crowded. People tend to get a little paranoid when they think you point a mobile phone in their direction. The technology is new so we had to deal with GPS accuracies caused by electricity cables, buses driving by and so on. We also spent a lot of time finding the right angle and GEO codes combination for 3D building positioning.

Q: What provision is there for people who don’t have these phones, and how did you go about making the choice to be selective with your audience?

It’s the first time mobile Augmented Reality is accessible on this scale. Augmented Reality only works on smartphones with compass and GPS receiver. We know not everybody has a smartphone and had several discussions how we could make UAR accessible for as many people as possible. We have choosen a multiplatform approach where we make the content available on stand-alone apps (for free) and via Layar browser. The Netherlands Architecture Institute wants to be innovative and decided to start with AR because of the relevancy of AR for architecture and in the belief that in the coming years everybody will have a smartphone.

Q: How successful has the app been?

The app has been downloaded approximately 2500 (iPhone/Android) times. Within the Layar browser UAR has been requested more the 6500 times.

Q: Can you give us some detail about the technical implementation of the app?

There were a lot of people and parties involved: NAi, IN10 (responsible for the concept, design, project management, CMS), Layar (SDK and browser), Triangle Studios (app development) DPI Animation House (3D models) and the Rotterdam Historical Archives.

Together we worked on getting the archive accessible in UAR on all kind of levels. We used the Content Management System to collect and upload the complete (selection of the) archive of NAi (materials, texts and 3D models made by DPI).

We imported a great amount of data by using Excel! For future releases, editors of the NAi, urban archives and architects can upload and create content directly in the CMS themselves. We’re also going to use all kinds of API’s and connect various collections and archive databases in UAR.

Q: What have you learnt about mobile / AR / developing this kind of thing? What might you do the same / differently in the future?

The biggest challenges we faced and learnings we have experienced during this process were the mobile multi-platform development, pre-loaded content, database connections/imports/API and 3D positioning.

I hope we get together with other museums and institutes to join forces on mobile development. I’ve seen that there are so many archives and collections that are digitalised. Together we can create strong mobile user experiences.

Q: What have you got planned for the future?

Rotterdam is the first city, to be followed later this year by Amsterdam, Utrecht and The Hague. The rest of the Netherlands will follow in 2011. We’re also planning to add user generated content to the application.

Q: Anything we’ve missed…?

Smartphones with AR, QR and image recognition are just the catalyst of a future where everything will be connected with data. It’s more important than ever to open up and join forces to create beautiful, interactive and meaningful museum environments in and outside the museum.

It’s time to tell data stories to augment the reality of our daily lives.

Streetmuseum: Q&A with Museum of London

Streetmuseum – a rather lovely iPhone app by the Museum of London – launched a few weeks ago, and almost immediately began to cause a bit of a buzz across Twitter and other social networks. It’s hardly surprising that people have responded so positively to it – the app takes the simplicity of the Looking Into the Past Flickr group and combines it with cutting-edge stuff like AR and location-based services (think Layar++) to bring historical London into a modern-day context.

I caught up with Vicky Lee last week and asked her a bunch of questions about the app. Here’s what she had to say:

Q: Please introduce yourself, and tell us about your involvement with the Museum of London iPhone app project

I’m Vicky Lee, Marketing Manager for the Museum of London. As part of the launch campaign for the new Galleries of Modern London I’ve been working with creative agency Brothers and Sisters to develop a free iPhone app – Streetmuseum – that brings the Museum to the streets.

Q: Tell us about the app – what it does, and how you’re hoping people will use it, also about how successful it is being

Streetmuseum uses augmented reality to give you a unique perspective of old and new London. The app guides users to sites across London where over 200 images of the capital, from the Museum of London’s art and photographic collections, can be viewed in-situ, essentially offering you a window through time. If you have a 3GS iPhone these images can be viewed in 2D and also in 3D, as a ghostly overlay on the present day scene. The AR function cannot be offered on 3G iPhones but users can still track the images through their GPS and view them in 2D, with the ability to zoom in and see detail. To engage with as many Londoners as possible, images cover almost all London boroughs. Each image also comes with a little information about the scene to give the user some historical context.

What we bet on from the start was that users would enjoy finding images of the street they live or work on and would be quick to demonstrate this to their friends and colleagues – helping to spread the word about Streetmuseum but also raising the profile of the Museum itself, particularly among young Londoners who we have previously struggled to reach. We hoped that the app would spread virally in this way within days and it certainly seems to have worked as in just over 2 weeks the app has had over 50,000 downloads. It’s just been released in all international iTunes stores so we’re expecting this figure to rocket over the coming weeks.

Q: Why did you choose to build an iPhone app as opposed to something else (Android, web, etc)

When I wrote the brief for a viral campaign to promote the new galleries and reposition the Museum of London, I had no idea we would end up launching an app. I hadn’t for one moment considered that we could afford to develop an app but Brothers and Sisters’ instinct from the start was that this was what we needed to change perceptions about the Museum. As soon as we understood how the concept fitted in with the overall marketing campaign (which also uses images from the Museum’s collections) it was the only option we wanted to pursue.
As with most Museum projects we were limited by budget so it was a case of either iPhone or Android but not both. To launch with maximum impact our feeling was that we had to go out with an iPhone app, therefore benefiting from the positive associations with the Apple brand and securing the interest of the media. We hope now to be able to secure funding to develop an Android version of the app in response to the many requests we have received.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the financial model? Did you build it in partnership with someone else?

As a free museum reliant on funding, we would not have been able to create this app without collaborating with Brothers and Sisters. The partnership was mutually beneficial, generating media coverage for both parties and new business leads for the agency. Using images from the Museum’s collections meant that all the content was readily available so this kept costs down. Licensing agreements on certain images made it complicated to charge for the app, however it was always our intention to launch this free in order to reach the widest possible audience.

Q: Overall, what have you learnt about the process so far?

Simple works best. We originally planned to include user generated content but dropped this idea to ensure we stuck to our budget and timescale. Ultimately the idea is not that original but its simplicity has made the app an easy sell, both nationally and internationally.
I’d certainly give myself more time in future – we delivered the app in an incredibly short amount of time which gave little opportunity to review how it worked in practice. With more time we could have carried out user testing and refined the concept further to end up with an even slicker product.

Q: What else have you got planned for mobile at the MOL into the future?

We’re keen to keep the momentum going and stay ahead of the field, so, together with Brothers and Sisters, we are already looking at how we can develop this concept further. If we can secure additional funding we’d like to explore different subject areas and tie-in with future exhibitions and gallery redevelopments. Most importantly though we need to build upon what we have already achieved and keep evolving to ensure that any new apps continue to be newsworthy. We are also looking into the possibility of adding more images to the current Streetmuseum app and developing a version for Android phones.