QR Code is used for encoding information in two-dimensional space -- like in the pages of magazines, in advertisements and even on TV and Web sites. They were originally used to track auto parts, but have become popular (especially in Japan) for much broader, often commercial purposes.
How is it different than a barcode?
Whereas a barcode encodes data in only the horizontal plane (as scanners read the width and distance between the vertical lines), QR codes encode data both horizontally and vertically in a grid of tiny squares. This allows for much more data to be encoded in a smaller space. Barcodes, then, though ubiquitous, are good for little more than identifying products and objects. Specially programmed scanners can read barcodes, and match them to product names, prices and inventory, but that's about it. QR codes, on the other hand, can actually embed that information in the code itself, and, when read with the proper software, can trigger actions like launching a website or downloading a file. Additionally, QR codes can be read from any angle, while barcodes must be aligned properly.
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So what exactly can I do with QR codes?
QR codes are tailor-made for quickly and easily linking to content on smartphones. Simple uses include magazine advertisements that link to websites. Putting the codes to more complex use, start-up Pingtag uses them as a sort of digital business card for sharing LinkedIn accounts and contact info. Android uses QR codes to link directly to apps in the Android Marketplace, and the municipality of Bordeaux, France has posted them all over the city in order to track parking meters, provide links to information from the World Heritage Foundation and guide visitors to nearby shops or parking locations via Google Maps. In turn, Google has been using QR codes to promote local businesses (and itself) with the Google Places business directory, which includes reviews, contact info, and, if the business so wishes, coupons.
How can I use them?
There are a number of apps in the iPhone App Store that can read QR Codes, including the free QRReader. Most Android phones and BlackBerries are able to read the codes right out of the box, as can newer Nokia handsets. Windows Mobile users can download QuickMarks. All you need to do is launch the appropriate app, and point your phone's camera at the QR code you want to scan.
QR codes are only bound to become more common in the coming months and years. We're increasingly reliant on our mobile devices, and typing out URLs or other data on their tiny keyboards is still not very efficient. These squares of elaborately arranged boxes are a shortcut around that problem, can easily be integrated with various services, and incorporate geo-location data. Advertisers may not have figured it out just yet, but QR codes are their best friends.