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A quizzical response to the new bar codes

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By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / October 8, 2011

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Katie McLoughlin, a hip South End resident, was strolling Newbury Street when she saw something she’d never noticed: a square piece of paper with a black and white pattern, posted on a real estate billboard.

It’s the kind of thing that is popping up regularly these days, but what, exactly, is it? “A reincarnation of those magic eye puzzles from the ’90s - you cross your eyes and the image pops out?’’ guessed McLoughlin, 27. She took another look, and admitted defeat. “I have no idea.’’

The answer: a kind of bar code known as Quick Response. Scan one with your phone, and you can get additional product information, watch an exclusive video, win a prize, or, in the case of Group Boston Real Estate’s QR code, learn square-footage and condo-fee numbers for advertised properties.

QR codes have quickly become the darling of the mobile marketing world. But despite their increasing ubiquity - they have appeared on Taco Bell cups, plants at the Home Depot , and Target toy catalogs- many consumers remain either totally ignorant or baffled.

“Is it one of those psychological - what do you call that - a Rorschach test?’’ asked Jeff Gannon, 49, of Sherborn, as he studied a QR code in the window of the Copley Society of Art on Newbury Street. “Is it something related to Groupon or LivingSocial?’’ said Patrick Benzie, 40, of the South End, as he scrutinized a large QR code in the window of the Ted Baker clothing store.

Thirty-five percent of adults own a smart phone, according to the Pew Internet Project, making the QR technology available to them.

Even as some consumers remained puzzled, the use of QR codes is skyrocketing. More than half of US companies now use them, up from about 20 percent in 2010, according to Loreen Worden, co-editor of QRCodePress.com, an online resource for mobile commerce trends.

That’s news to Paul Gehring, 55, the director of a YMCA branch, who was walking in Back Bay last week. “I’ve never seen one before,’’ he said. His explanation? “We’re from Virginia.’’

A call to the Virginia Chamber of Commerce confirmed that the state is not a QR-code-free zone - a fact his wife, Mimi, 55, quickly surmised. “Watch us go back to Fredericksburg and see them all over the place,’’ she said.

A subsidiary of Toyota developed QR codes in 1994 to track cars in the production line, and now the range of products with QR codes has gone so far beyond sedans that it includes the afterlife. A Seattle firm has started selling QR stickers for headstones, the better to learn more about the deceased.

In July, 14.4 million people scanned at least one QR code , according to comScore , a Seattle-based digital research firm. In August, the number hit 16.5 million.

Men are bigger scanners than women (60.8 percent), and people with household incomes of $100,000 or more scan more than lower earners, according to comScore. Scanning is also a young person’s game. Those 25 to 34 scan more than people between 35 and 44, who scan more than those in the 45-to-54 group, and so on. Only 2.9 percent of scanners are 65 or older.

In other words, as a 58-year-old female, Deborah Kahn is not in the QR demographic - and it shows. “It’s one of those things that’s dimly in your consciousness,’’ said Kahn, a Boston University art history professor. “I have wondered about them in my own internal way, but I have no one to ask. I might ask my son, but he’s at college.’’

Whether the latest technological advance is a good thing is up for debate. “This life, it’s getting crazier by the minute,’’ said Mary Rentschler, 57, an interior designer from Martha’s Vineyard, who had never noticed a QR code until one was pointed out to her in Back Bay.

Actually, make that crazier by the second. Scanbuy Inc., a New York company that develops and manages QR codes, processes 1.2 scans a second, every second of the day, or more than 100,000 scans per day globally. (When the smart phone app scans the code, it acts like a hyperlink, taking the user to a webpage.)

During the 12-month period from January 2010 to December 2010, the company saw a 1,600 percent increase in the number of scans processed per day, said Mike Wehrs, the firm’s CEO and president. “It’s been a wild time to be in the industry. We have advertisers who have decided this is an imperative.’’

Perhaps it’s inevitable that people too would be scanned.

“Someone scans your personal QR code, and with a touch of a button they can call or text you,’’ said Tammy Lewis, chief marketing officer of Skanz, a Tarrytown, N.Y., firm that makes bracelets and phone covers with personalized QR codes. “It lets you house your digital life in one place - your social media links, your Google +, what have you, videos, photos, a bio page. We call them your social print.’’ Privacy concerns can be addressed by requiring a password to read the codes.

In the business world, the challenge is not excluding potential scanners but engaging them. Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, said “the rule of thumb’’ is that it takes three views of something for a consumer to absorb it. “But my guess is that most people have seen hundreds of QR codes already and haven’t noticed,’’ she said.

Or maybe they have noticed but prefer to ignore them. Casey DeWalt, 30, an emergency room nurse from Jamaica Plain, said she couldn’t imagine that a QR code would improve her existence. “Is my life going to be better?’’ she asked before answering her own question. “No.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.

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