QR Codes: What are they?

This is part one of a four part series by Greg Shine introducing QR Codes as digital media tools for helping visitors better connect to and understand the significance of historic sites like Fort Vancouver. Greg prepared this series as part of the curriculum for the annual NPS-PSU Public History Field School.

QR Code that links to our Public History Field School webpage.

Beginning in 2008, our park began experimenting with QR Codes as interpretive tools. Based on our coursework this quarter, the following posts comprise a quick primer on what they are, how they work, and how we’re using them.

What are they? How do they work?

Generally speaking, QR (Quick Response) codes are a type of bar code, similar to those you find on products at your neighborhood grocery store.

As our archaeologist Dr. Bob Cromwell (a railroad enthusiast) is quick to point out, one of the first uses of bar code technology was to help track the nation’s myriad railroad cars in the mid-nineteenth century. Since then, the technology has been widely adopted (and adapted) for other retail and inventory uses. Most recently, it is becoming more consumer driven…and directed.

UPC Code
UPC Code from my lunch today.

There are many places that you can learn about the specific bar code symbology, and I won’t attempt to go into detail here, but bar codes embed data in a way that can be easily and quickly read by another device.

The most common place that most folks encounter bar codes is at the grocery store, where scanners can “read” a product’s UPC (Universal Product Code). At the checkout, this technology allows the clerk (and us) to quickly identify the product and its price, but behind the scenes it also tracks the item from production to purchase, links to the product’s inventory, and provides other important metrics such as what it was purchased with, when it was purchased, and often where in the store it was purchased.

This provides the grocery with valuable information about consumer choice patterns. The data embedded can vary greatly, too, and is not limited to what it is and when/where it was produced.

UPC Code on the back of a book in the park bookstore
Two types of code from park partners on the back of a book sold in our Bookstore.

In national parks today, bar code technology is used in many ways. In the NPS’ Pacific West Region, all sensitive equipment is given a bar code sticker for help in scheduling repair and replacement. In some parks, equipment for seasonal firefighters is tracked through bar coding. Many park publications sport a bar code on their derrières, and most of our park partners and cooperating associations use the technology in ways very similar to our local grocery stores.


To access Part 2, please click here.

Last updated: February 28, 2015

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