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| Monday, Sept. 28, 2009

Two-dimensional bar codes popping up across the city are creating a type of real-world hyperlink for art enthusiasts and curious passers-by.

Quick Response, or QR, codes were first used for tracking inventory in 1990s Japan, but in the past year, Pittsburghers have begun using them in the Cultural District and North Side.

The codes look like a pattern of boxes and are meant to be used with smart phones such as an iPhone or a Blackberry.

Using the phone's camera, a person snaps a photo of the QR code. A code reader, which can be downloaded from various Web sites, acts on the information encoded in the image. The action can be anything from sending the phone's browser to a company's Web site or passing along information about an art exhibit.

AlphaGraphics, a printing company in the Cultural District, recently stuck on its windows two poster-sized QR codes that, when deciphered, sends a person to the company's Web site and offers contact information.

"It's a new way of marketing and getting information across," said Rich Cichoski, manager of AlphaGraphics. "The technology and information in the world grows exponentially daily, and people want it more at their fingertips. This is another method to deliver it that's quick and expedient."

The Mattress Factory art museum in the North Side experimented with QR codes in November that sent users to an unpublished Web site, spokesman Jeffrey Inscho said. The site got a couple of hundred hits, and the museum decided there was enough of a market to keep the codes, which accompanied an exhibit in April.

The museum uses QR codes that include prompts for patrons to send a text message to a number that will be returned with instructions on how to use the codes.

"Technology really has a way of intimidating people, so we try to break it down very simply for our visitors," Inscho said. "We're trying to introduce the new technology by using technology people are generally familiar with. QR codes are new, but everybody can send a text message nowadays."

Carnegie Mellon University researchers are looking into how QR codes could help people remember Web site passwords.

CMU would create a Web tool that's built into a browser and allows people to create QR codes containing their login information for, say, an Amazon account, said Jason Hong, an assistant professor of human-computer interaction at CMU.

People could use their computers' built-in camera to scan the codes, which would be encrypted to work only on a certain computer, Hong said.

Researchers are considering how to help companies like Amazon create a similar application for their sites.

"It's like a physical bookmark," he said. "You put the card in front of the camera, you'll go into the Web site and log in. Since you don't even know your own password, you can't fall for these phishing scams."

Cell phones in the United States are just starting to come with QR code readers, but QR codes are prevalent in Japan, Hong said.

"Even business cards in restaurants (have) QR codes," he said.

They're poised to become more common here, Cichoski said.

"The world is moving to a faster-and-faster, wanting-it-more-now type world," he said. "This is just the next piece of that."

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