Blog Post

This man wants to kill QR codes. Can he do it?

Herbert Bay, co-founder and CEO of Kooaba

Herbert Bay doesn’t like QR codes very much. He’s not alone of course: The glitchy glyphs, which are generally used as a clumsy way to link physical media to the web, are regarded by many as the ugliest thing seen in black and white since D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation.

Yet they have proved remarkably popular with publishers, advertisers and web consultants desperate to find gimmicks that can add interactivity to analog media.

But it’s not just that Bay, a Swiss entrepreneur, dislikes QR codes. He also thinks he has a way to kill them off entirely.

His company, Zurich-based Kooaba, has been working on a suite of image-recognition technologies for the past six years, ever since it spun off from Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology. And now it has launched a new app that it hopes can make a significant dent in the way we link the offline and online worlds.

The app, Shortcut, allows users to take a photo of newspaper pieces, magazine articles, advertisements and even billboards and then link them straight to a digital version on their phone. With a Path-like UI, users can then share, comment or store what they have found — or go and play with it if there are interactive extras attached.

“The pitch when we talk to newspapers and printed publications is that we can make them interactive — and they don’t need to place any QR codes anywhere,” says Bay. “In addition they can sell their advertisers on that interactivity . . . it removes the need for QR codes.”

It already works with publications like USA Today and the New York Post, and more are being added all the time. In practice, it is not a million miles away from Google Goggles (s GOOG) but with more focus.

Here is a video that shows it in action.

The app — for iPhone (s aapl), Android (s goog) and Windows Phone (s msft) — is actually a retooling of a previous release known as Paperboy, which was focused on news media. That remains its strong point, with recognition of more than 1,000 newspapers and magazines from all over the world. However, through a partnership with the international media sales company Publicitas, Bay and his team realized they wanted to branch out into advertising — and that meant they needed to rework what they had done.

But even though Shortcut has broadened out its remit a little, the reality is that Kooaba could actually apply its technology to any media: DVD cases, books, movie posters, CDs. Instead the company has chosen to keep its focus narrow to try to gain traction.

“The thing with a startup is deciding where to put your resources,” says Bay. “Newspapers and magazines are low-hanging fruit for our app, so we’re focused on those for now.”

Simply recognizing images may not be enough, though. Image recognition — Kooaba’s secret sauce — is a hard nut to crack, but it has become radically easier over the past few years with computing power moving to the cloud. Bay thinks the extra ingredient lies in a system that Kooaba has built that allows publishers to add interactive elements to the content that is fed into Shortcut. However, with many media companies struggling and confused about where to spend their time and energy, he admits that it is proving a tough sell.

Right now the majority of the app’s traction has been powered through partnerships — one with NewspaperDirect, which has a huge inventory of around 2,000 newspapers every day, and one that links it with Evernote.

It has gotten this far with around $5 million in funding — one seed round from a Swiss bank, friends and angel investors, and another slightly larger round from private Swiss investors.

To break through, however, what Kooaba needs to do is forge a couple of really smart deals with great publishers and advertisers so that the dreaded QR code can be sidestepped. But Bay knows that in order to take the service to the next level, it will need something more . . . and that could require more funds.

“In terms of profitability we do well on the technology side,” he says. “But the advertising part is resource-demanding — we need sales guys and business development, so we are looking for strategic investment.”

35 Responses to “This man wants to kill QR codes. Can he do it?”

  1. Dean Collins

    Sounds like Kooaba doesn’t understand UI and why QR codes and doorknobs dont need instructions to ‘identify them” and “how to use them” unlike the various proprietary image recognition solutions that are out there.

    Just for clarification, i dont sell QR services. I provided the “60 second overview” page just as a way of saying to people hey if you dont understand it go here for a quick lesson in what it all means.

    My bigger issue with image redirection is Kooaba are using a proprietary app (unless you’ve made a decision to open source the code that i cant see when checking out their website).


    Kooaba are using “Indirect URL redirection”… customer stops paying them and image recognition stops working and their “graphics’ are dead.

    Read my blog you should see the amount of stick i give QR vendors who do the same thing and only provide URL redirection instead of direct codes.

    Those two points are my bigger issue rather than the object identification issue which is a problem in itself.

  2. Juston Payne

    This seems like the classic case of a technology trying to find a market. And, in this case, I’m not convinced there’s a market. In fact, I’m not convinced this business should exist at all in its current form.

    More on this opinion here:

  3. Robert McCarthy

    Once the general public begins to see designer, BRANDED QR codes, the game will change. Marketers consistenly drop the ball with half-hearted, generated-in-3-seconds, black-and-white codes that neither launch a mobile site nor are accompanied by any call to action. This will change and when it does, when marketers realize that the CODE ITSELF can be the advertisement, combined with an increased awareness by the general public (see: Japan), THEN you will see the explosion of QR. Check out Quickercity ( That startup is doing something VERY different with QR codes.

  4. Boian Spassov

    It is funny to me how many people just bash qr codes. QR codes are just a technology that enables the web where ever you go. QR code readers are like browsers with a history. It is simple.

    Now Augmented Reality, NFC, etc. Are all great technologies, but they all have their own short comings.

    AR – do u really thing people are just going to walk around with their pointing their phones at things none stop? Plus you people forget one fundamental short coming of apps such as the one above . . . you need to download something. Plenty of QR code readers out there, bar code readers and google googles.

    NFC has the same problem that Blue Tooth and all of its predecessors have. Near range communications are hardware dependent. By the time such hardware is cycled through phones, tvs, atms, digital signage, etc. – the innovation cycle completes another loop and the next more secure, higher bandwidth technology comes. – The last great hardware innovation was touch screen . . . that had cross platform appeal.

    It is simple, qr code growth in scans is on the rise. More and more people use them. Have you ever been in Best buy? Even as hard as they are to scan the Go Daddy qr code campaign during the super bowl – had tremendous success for their mobile strategy.

    In conclusion, bashing on QR codes is like bashing hyper links – all qr codes do is turn ur phone into a mouse.

  5. I couldnt care less whether they die now or later, (which they WILL), but i would LOVE for someone to come out with a kid-friendly version…I HAVE KEPT 2 KIDS QUIET THROUGHT BEST BUY BY CHALLENGING THEM TO FIND A QR CODE and then i let them scan it. They didnt care about what was at the other end, they were just thrilled when the scanner recognized it! KIDS QR CODES THROUGHOUT STORES EVERYWHERE….PARENTS COMPLETING AN ENTIRE THOUGHT…WIN/WIN!

  6. Spektacle Magazine

    Doubt it that QR Codes will “die” anytime soon. Compared to the alternatives out there, they are easy to create, extremely cheap to produce non-proprietary, recognised around the world, and there’s many barcode readers available across many phone makes that recognise them.

  7. I’d like to see the image recognition energy expended in the direction of phone/mobile camera technology that automatically recognizes a QR code and includes integrated reader. I think that would go a long way toward improving the user experience, and ultimately reduce barriers to interaction. And then I’d like to see marketers get more imaginative when it comes to the destinations QRCs resolve to. Any bets on whether the latter happens before the former?

  8. Michael Hraba

    For a hotel, we actually used QR codes on an in room picture of forest, landmarks, etc throughout the park we are in. The QR Code scans to a geolocation, and then the guest can make the augmented transition from looking at art in your bedroom, to exploring the national park in a geocaching excercise that engages the body and mind. When we made our art program, i always knew we would want to celebrate the Park in a fun, special way that creates curiosity, adventure, and interaction. It’s going to be immensely popular, and really a fun way to experiment with augmented reality, and the intersection of guest experience with art, technology, and nature. My point in giving a background is this:

    Why kill the QR Code? Make it pretty… or make it evolve. I don’t care, but the QR code can serve a function like ours, in a very simple, almost zero cost or labor, way. I don’t believe this program could do what the QR Code is doing for us?

    It’s pretty myopic to think this real world to online content biz model would impact the wider usage of QR Codes…. which seem more versatile, readier to meet many media, augmented reality, and real-to-digital world needs. I have a feeling it will be hard to make inroads against something that does many things well, versus one specific one that does a specific task incredibly well?

  9. Derek Scruggs

    I have never used a QR code and never seen a single person use one. I can see their application in more industrial contexts (i.e. a building inspector using it to pull up information about the electrical contractor) but question their utility for marketing.

  10. Ram Kanda

    QR Codes will die and sooner than many think. Actually read some studies and you’ll quickly find that most regular folks still don’t know what they are. On top of that, they’re not natively recognised on the world’s top selling smartphone (iPhones); you have to download an application. AR (Augmented Reality) can do everything a QR code can do and then some… and if you have to download an app anyway, then it may as well be an AR one… but alas.. even that is going away. NFC is on its way (already on many smartphones) and that will kill off whatever is left of QR. Just swipe and you’ll get whatever link pushed to your phone.

    QR was not a solution created for consumers but for marketers and it shows in it’s limited proliferation and implementation.

  11. There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding of what QR codes are. They are a replacement for bar codes that are optimized for detection by digital cameras. As such they are aren’t going anywhere for a long time.

    It is clear that at some point in the future image recognition through wearable devices will be good enough for the computer to interpret what you are looking at and give you contextual options based off that understanding, but we are not there yet.

    Currently this technology is actually a step backward from QR codes. Whereas QR codes are designed to decrease the margin for error, these are increasing it. On top of that they don’t provide any indication that what you are looking at is something to scan. I see a QR code I know that I can scan it, and it will give me some sort of information. So this is going to suffer from serious brand recognition issues.

    As to QR code abuse, while I agree there are improper uses where it is not likely the user could even scan the code; that doesn’t have anything to do with the success of the medium. People understand that if they see the QR code they can scan it with their phone misuse does nothing to muddy that understanding. It is an effective means to provide a bridge to a mobile phone. I too was confused the first time I saw the QR code on a website, but after stepping out of my box I realized it is a universal method to provide a link to a mobile phone.

    If anything QR codes are still under used. I’m curious why Google doesn’t provide app vendors with a branded android logo and a QR code to their app. Why every person does not put a QR code on their business card, why would I want to enter the details by hand. Why people still put out handouts without a QR code on them. Why do I have to carry coupons, why can’t you just put a QR code on the coupon and let me add it to my phone instead of stuffing it in my wallet. Why aren’t they on gift cards? Those silly contests where business put codes under bottle caps, QR code and done.

    The uses for QR code that haven’t taken off yet are immense so get used to it. This service doesn’t change a thing, and until image recognition is truly ubiquitous and far more advanced, QR codes are the stop gap.

  12. Sean Clark

    There is no getting away from it QR Codes are ugly, but they offer some distinct advantages over image scanning.

    Embedding information in images is nothing new, Digimarc has existed for many years, it just has gained popularity.

    The main issue is knowing that an image can be scanned. A QR Code by design indicates it can be scanned, without any prompting or additional text. In addition there are many freely available scanners for nearly all mobile platforms. Scannable images will require some end user education, reducing their effectiveness.

    Also QR Code abuse is not limited to just QR Codes, all new forms of media communication get abused, just look at Twitter. image scanning will be no different.

    I much prefer image scanning, it’s just going to need much more end user education and App support before it becomes a viable option.

  13. QR doesn’t need a middle-man, which is where this guy wants to make his buck. Good luck to him, but QR isn’t going to die any time soon. He’d better add some value besides just providing a link.

  14. Nameswing Network

    Exactly, Steve.

    It makes no sense to think that QR Codes can’t evolve into something more and the much sought after “quick response” effort has already been branded QR.

  15. Steve Briggs

    Technology like this certainly has its place, but there’s no reason that QR Codes “must die”. QR Codes are and will remain the most widely accessible and efficient way to link the physical world to the online world. Anyone can create a QR Code and link it to whatever they want, whereas Shortcut is proprietary and only links to content that Shortcut has created links to, which also requires (I assume) sending the image to the server for interpretation. QR Codes can be interpreted within the app on the phone.

    Don’t get me wrong – it’s great technology and I can’t wait to try it, but why do we have to talk about killing other technologies? Can’t we all just get along?

    • physical

      The biggest problem with QR codes is the massive amount of misuse of them. They are a great way to make that analog to digital transition, but the social media popularity of them has lead people to plaster them in all sorts of places where they are not useful, thus leading to people using them less.

      QR Codes flashing in at the last 5 seconds of a television commercial: It takes more time to register that there is a QR Code to scan, and to get your phone out of your pocket than it is visible on the screen. I’ve never successfully attempted to scan one. I seriously doubt their ability to read them while sitting on the couch.

      QR Codes on giant billboards on the highway: These I’ve actually attempted, both driving and stationary. I have never managed to successfully read them. My phone is pretty decent quality (HTC Thunderbolt).

      QR Codes on websites: I can read these most of the time. Only on older monitors do I have issue. But, this isn’t a usage scenario for a QR Code. This is already digital. Why not email the contents of the QR code. There are plenty of other ways (my favorite is Chrome to Phone). The workflow around scanning a QR code on your monitor is much more complex than simply sending yourself an email with the information.

      The only place I’ve ever seen a QR code that I’ve scanned and found useful are ones on Flyers (once found one with the entire text of the flyer on the QR code), magazines, posters, etc. Print Media that wants to make information available quickly and easily.

      • Steve Briggs

        Absolutely agree – QR Code abuse is the biggest problem to overcome, but as more useful applications are developed I think QR Codes can move beyond this early stage and gain acceptance.

    • Jeremy Toeman

      What is “efficient” about a QR code? Considering NO phones can naturally decode them, it requires the consumer to have a dedicated app. Which in and of itself is NOT efficient… QR codes are a band-aid on a broken arm.

      • Robert McCarthy

        Scan my profile picture and you will see what can be efficient about a Qr code. This code yields a complete mobile get-around guide to Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood. It ELIMINATES the need for conducting a location-based search within the area.

    • Bruce Thomas

      My thoughts exactly. Apples and oranges again. The media trying to compare 2 products which really aren’t even the same.

      It’s a great new service, but isn’t geared to “kill” anything. People are too stuck on figuring out how to use “killer” when describing new services as it makes for better media. However, I doubt even the companies making the services are out to “kill” anything else–they are just set on making the best service they can.