This is Part Two of a five part series I am calling “Invasion of The Things: How to Prepare Your Tourist Location for the Coming Mobile Apocalypse.” In this and the three posts that follow, I will cover:

  1. How the things that make up your tourist location, like statues and historical buildings, can “talk” to modern mobile devices
  2. Four technologies you can use today, and their pros and cons
  3. One way overzealous marketers use technology to ruin your tourism brand
  4. Where a seismic shift in how you interact with mobile tourists is coming from, and how Google is investing heavily to make it happen
  5. Five things you need to do NOW to prepare for the invasion…of the Things

In Part One we learned there are four technologies that can make “dumb” (as in, non-communicative) things talk to mobile phones. In this post I will discuss two of those, beginning with the least evolved, the most common, and the most abused ~ the lowly QR code.

The QR Code

At the bottom of the evolutionary ladder, intelligence wise, is the first of our four techniques for giving an otherwise “dumb” thing, like that stone statue in the middle of your town square, the kind of smarts that can talk to a tourist’s mobile device, which today they hold in their hand and tomorrow may have implanted in their retina. We are speaking of the quintessential amoeba of embedded computing: the lowly Quick Response code, commonly known as a QR code. Calling a QR code an embedded computer is like calling a Twinkie a French Pastry, inaccurate and unfair to the pastry because QR codes don’t actually compute or do anything active. They are strictly a passive device, a printed sticker really, that requires the action of the tourist to be of any value.

Specifically, the tourist must first notice the code (or have it pushed under their nose), have a QR scanning app installed on their mobile device, and finally, get close enough to the code (less than a few centimeters) to scan it, that is, to pull information from it. Then voila, their device automagically responds to whatever information is encoded in the QR, which most often is the address (URL) of a website. Then the scanning device displays the website, which can be a YouTube video, a form, or anything. If the scanning device is not connected to the Internet at the time, then it displays zip, nada, nothing. That’s becoming less of a shortcoming as our world becomes more connected, but can be an issue for tourists who go off-line while traveling to avoid paying through the schnoz for expensive roaming charges.

Note who is in control of this push/pull exchange: the owner of the device. He sees the code and then chooses, by his own volition and without compulsion, to scan or not to scan. That is a powerful advantage, but it has a major drawback. In a world (to be said in a Don LaFontaine voice) where every “thing” has its own website, the device owner will quickly become overwhelmed. We will need technology to help us filter things in, or more importantly, out.

We see QR codes everywhere nowadays, including on the side of moving buses, which is insane, because who is going to run alongside a moving bus to scan a QR, except for maybe The Flash? In fact, the mis-application of QR codes by over-zealous but ignorant marketers is largely spelling the technology’s doom, and that’s too bad, because love them or hate them, QR codes do one thing, and really only one thing, reasonably well: they link the scanning device to a website. But alas, then we run into another set of problems…those websites are often not mobile friendly or worse, they don’t work at all. You can see two examples of such disasters in this video from a tourist site in Richmond, Virginia, or from this video from downtown Atlanta, Georgia.

One bite of a Twinkie is enough to know whether you like it or not. Tourists who try scanning a QR code, then struggle with its slow response, only to be presented with hard to read or broken content, are not likely to try it again. QR codes are an interesting idea, but I predict they are destined for the scrap heap of technologies that failed, not due to the technology itself, but rather because they were mis-applied as part of a poorly conceived or poorly executed plan. Personally speaking, I also find QR codes ugly. Who wants one stuck on his statue? Not mine, thanks. And so, we move up the evolutionary ladder to the Near Field Communication (NFC) sticker.

Near Field Communication Tags

NFC tags, which can come as a visible sticker (a “push” mechanism), contain tiny microchips with a tiny antenna, just like a miniature radio that keeps playing the same song over and over. That “song” contains information, which is typically the URL of a website. The NFC tag’s broadcast gets picked up by a nearby (again, centimeters, not meters) mobile device, which responds just like it would with a QR code, by opening the browser with the website coded in the “song” (a “pull” mechanism). As of this writing, not many mobile devices can receive NFC broadcasts, but that is about to change…quickly.

NFC offers a more secure and sophisticated data exchange than QR codes do, and so they have been selected by Apple and other companies for their relatively complex digital payment systems, like Apple Pay. For that reason, we can expect to see new mobile devices come complete with a factory installed NFC scanning capability. The primary shortcoming of NFC is that it is primarily an Android technology, and for most applications, NFC will serve the same simple function as QR codes: they will instantly link a scanning device to a website.

Foolishly applied, NFC tags can and will fail for all the same reasons that QR codes do, and at a much higher cost. They are like QR codes with a twist, like the Blue-Raspberry Creme Twinkie (Yes, it exists), but still something with a very limited application for tourism, mostly because the scanner must get so close to the tags in order to read them. To solve the proximity problem, we move up the evolutionary ladder again, to the latest and greatest of IoT technologies — the Physical Web and its hardware enabler ~ the battery-powered beacon.

More on that in my next post.