Sheri D Wilson, Alberta poetInaugurating the first QR book of poetry ever, award-winning poet Sheri-D Wilson launched her latest work, Goddess Gone Fishing for a Map of the Universe (Frontenac House, 2012) to a packed room in downtown Calgary earlier this year. In a stunning spoken word performance, and reflecting a marrying of the organic and the electronic, QR (quick response) codes transported the audience to secret messages, URLs, and new insights that add layers to the poetry as printed—or even spoken. To the accompaniment of an improvised jazz ensemble, and in a Star Trekian-like bar scene, guests were invited to dress up on this particular evening, amidst turquoise cocktails, bubbling champagne, and Alberta beer. The audience became co-performers in lit wigs, goddess gowns, feathers, fedoras, and flowers, while murmurings of McLuhan-esque swirled at the launch, reflecting a post-modern blend of mixed media, and leaving the audience besotted.

I won’t attempt a review of Wilson’s poetry nor her unique performance style. What caught my attention was the use of the QR code. Was it an advertising twist or a literary technique? Annie Proulx once complained about the need for an author to find blurbs to put on the dust jacket, this at a time when authors started to develop all kinds of gimmicks to sell their books. In Wilson’s case, it is both. She developed a QR code as a marketing tool that tells you within her book are numerous QR codes that take you to an additional, sometimes labyrinthine, level of the poetry.

When asked how the QR code came to her, Wilson said, “It just came to me in a flash and when it did, I just knew in my being that it was it, and where I should go.”

With a promotional tour that was taking her through several cities, at one point she landed long enough in one place and was able to explain further.

One day my web master was showing me some new developments. Then I went downstairs and was doing some writing and had an epiphany. I realized the QR code is not just for marketing. It can create a multi-media forum, an extension of oral tradition. It’s just a natural occurrence. I can change them any time I like. It’s a way of developing audio and video so that the reader and the audience become interactive, a participant.

The QR code was originally developed for manufacturing and has actually been around since 1994. It was developed like a big brother to the UPC barcode but had been a sleeper until 2011 when it suddenly popped into the mainstream. Simply put, it consists of a 2-dimensional square encoded digitally that takes you to, most commonly, a URL, but in reality, almost anything can be entered into a QR code. The code itself is embedded with error correcting data to correct for a code that might be read by a scanner at an uneven level.

The 2-dimensional image is detected by a semiconductor image sensor and then digitally analyzed by a programmed processor, tech speak for an app. The processor locates the three distinctive squares at the corners of the image then normalizes the image size, orientation, and angle of viewing. The small dots are then converted to binary numbers, and voila—you are taken to a URL, or in the case of Wilson’s poems—additional lines that complete the poem, neologisms, a visual in a link, or even a link within a link.

The advantage QR codes have over the traditional UPC barcode is due to its fast readability and large storage capacity. QR codes can be read by just about any smartphone whereas UPC codes need to be scanned by a light beam. The reason for the popularity of the QR code is that with the huge saturation of Androids, iPhones, and Blackberries, smartphones are easily equipped with apps that can scan and decode QR codes within seconds.

qr codeThe QR code is rapidly appearing in marketing and advertising, product packaging, real estate, trade show booths, restaurant menus, and even on a wedding cake. The advertising industry loves this latest bit of technology because they can provide a consumer with more information than what might be provided in a small space on a product. Conference goers are wearing ID badges with QR codes built in so that people aren’t even exchanging business cards – they just scan each other’s codes. In the case of some apps, the uploaded data is entered automatically into your address book. Very cool.

Adding to its huge popularity is the fact that the use of QR Codes is considered fair usage. If you are super technically oriented, the QR code has been ISO approved since 2006.

To create your own QR code is called “qurifying”. Any kind of information can be entered into a QR code. There are numerous QR code generators online. Check out: www.qurify.com/en/what_are_qr_codes . Now, this is a for instance. You can quickly see that if you had the QR code for this site you wouldn’t have to enter the URL by hand.

On a code generating site, you simply enter the information you wish to encode, such as your writing website, your latest publication, a blog, or any aspect of your writing platform. For example, here’s a shameless self plug for my recipe blog, which I write just for the fun of it, created in a milli-second on the above website and saved as a JPG file.

What you need to read a QR code is simply a downloadable app, also free from a number of online sites. Very recently, it’s morphed into the UpCode™. Check out:  www.upcode.com/download. Once installed on your phone, you can scan away. Some apps have a camera built in where you take a picture of the code, then the URL is sent to you. Other apps have been developed where you simply place your phone over the code and it will be scanned instantly and automatically.

This newbie qurifier found some scans were processed immediately, but don’t be surprised if it takes three or four scans for the sensor to be able to read the code, sometimes even up to eight tries. To save yourself some grief, try to have the code you want to scan as level as possible. Things aren’t perfect yet with the widespread use of QR codes.

qr codeAs with any new technology, yes, there have been reports of malicious QR codes circulating that can attack your data, spread a virus, and steal identity. It all depends on the number of permission layers your phone and network has. The simplicity of a QR code is a double-edged sword as in some instances it gives you no clue as to whether the destination is good or not.

The younger demographic QR codes have appealed to, such as the 18-34 year olds, are curious and impatient. They might scan a code found on a bulletin board, not knowing where it will actually take them with their device and they are taking a risk. According to the pundits, (such as found on www.darkreading.com), the frequency of attacks is not super high yet, but the potential is there. They further advise, “Only use QR code reader software that allows the user to confirm the action to be taken — i.e., visit a website link…If you do not know and trust the link, cancel the action.” As with safe emailing, and safe surfing, so with safe qurifying!

The implications of the QR code for publishing have already begun rolling around in the industry. Publishers are beginning to incorporate QR codes on dust jackets and in promotional blurbs. McGraw-Hill, for instance, has incorporated QR codes into textbooks, allowing students to scan these codes taking them directly to multimedia content, enriching the learning experience. By linking readers directly to a publisher, the all important seller-consumer relationship develops through interactive content. Pundits predict that the QR code will replace the ISBN number.

In reaction to Wilson’s use of QR codes in Goddess, Lyn Cadence, from Frontenac House comments,

We’ve had good response. The QR codes add another dimension to the book, but are not necessary to enjoying and understanding the text…The ebook is about to launch and QR codes do make an appearance. Frontenac House is keen to try new things so we embrace Sheri-D’s experimentation. How QR codes will be used in future in art, research, marketing…is hard to know. It’s early days.

For now, it’s a bit of a novelty, but it is also an opportunity to extend a publication to current developments and thoughts. People have to be a little bit tech savvy to use QR codes smoothly and not everyone wants to go to the trouble or see the benefit before trying it out. So, we are about to launch a contest where contestants will have to answer a question about a QR code from the book which they will have to find and decode. We’ll provide hints and tips and walk contestants through the process of decoding the code. The grand prize is an iPad – and eBooks. We hope that will motivate a lot of people to try out the process and see what they think.”

QR codes are hot, and a snap to develop, so start thinking about one for your writing platform and see where it takes you, and where you can take your readers.

Published in WestWord – Magazine of the Writers Guild of Alberta
Vol. 32, No. 4, July/August 2012, p. 11-12.
Revised August 28, 2012
reprinted by permission of the author

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Colleen Stewart Haynes has parked a long career in nursing to go to the sandbox where she can do what she loves most — write and edit. She says it is never too late to go back to school, having recently completed an MA degree. She cut her teeth on a number of freelance articles published over the years and is working on book length ideas now. See more about Colleen’s work on the Editors’ Association of Canada website.

Sheri-D Wilson has published 8 collections of poetry, produced two Spoken Word CDs and four award-winning VideoPoems, all produced for BravoFACT. She is a regular on CBC & CKUA radio, and has performed around the world, from Canada and the USA to Africa and Europe. This spring she will be performing in London and Barcelona. She has been the Artistic Director/Producer of the Calgary Spoken Word Festival since 2003, she organized SWAN (Spoken Word Arts Network) in 2005 & 2007, produced the 2008 National Slam of Canada in Calgary, and since 2007 has been the Program Director of the Spoken Word Program at Banff Centre. She has served on many committees for the League of Canadian Poets, and was on National Council for the Writers Union of Canada. In 2006 The National Slam presented her with the Poet of Honour Award.  Since then, Sheri-D produced and hosted the Calgary Monthly Slam, until The Ink Spot Collective took over the reins in January 2012. Presently, Sheri-D organizes and hosts the Youth Slam at the Calgary Library the second Saturday of every month. Check out Sheri-D’s new book at Frontenac House. Available in print and in digital download.

If you’ve never seen Sheri-D in action, check out this video: