Archive for the ‘Image’ Category

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Microsoft Tags vs. QR Codes

January 25, 2009

Microsoft have relatively recently launched their new “mobile tagging” beta programme.  It’s quite similar to the existing QR codes that have been around for some time and it was for this reason that it caught my attention and I decided to give Microsoft Tag an evaluation in comparison to QR codes.

For anyone unfamiliar with QR codes, they use a simple matrix of monochromatic pixels to encode a string of text.  Microsoft Tag on the other hand is a “High Capacity Colour Barcode” (HCCB) that uses five lines of a series of triangular markers coloured cyan, yellow or magenta (CYM) to encode a string of text.  The text strings contain meta data as well as data effectively identifying what the data should is and how it should be used.

So the first thing to examine are the types of ‘things’ that the two technologies could encode.  For these comparisons I’ve used the QuickMark QR Code Generator and the Microsoft Tag Beta.

Data Object QR Code Microsoft Tag
URL Yes Yes
Bookmark Yes No
Phone No. Yes Yes
SMS Yes No
E-mail Yes No
vCard Yes Yes
meCard Yes No
Generic address Yes No
Simple Text Yes Yes
Encrypted Text Yes Yes
Geographic Coordinates Yes No

Microsoft Tag has a couple of features that can be applied to each of its available options. First of all a password can be applied to apply an additional level of security.  Validation dates can also be added to any option allowing things to expire or be valid during a certain event or marketing campaign for example.

So at this first stage QR codes seem to have a greater range of ‘things’ that can be coded than Microsoft Tag, but Microsoft Tag has a few additional features that if you’re just encoding URLs may make it a better option.  One thing I would like to see that isn’t covered by these (but I guess could be if you created a URL to an appropriate file) is something relating to a an event definition – e.g. iCalendar.

The next element I examined was the generation options for the final image.

QR Codes

PNG |JPG |GIF |SVG |TXT

Microsoft Tags

PDF | WMF | XPS

The QR code generation has a range of code generation sizes (30 levels) with UTF character set options and a couple of four level (L/M/H/U) error correction options.  The Microsoft Tag generator on the other hand only offers a size changing option but rather than being level based the user can choose a code size between 0.75″ and 120″.

Whilst the Microsoft Tag file formats for code generation are based around vector graphics formats ideal for printing I personally find it useful to be able to put the codes on a web page.  I’ve frequently used QR codes on web pages to get software links or other information onto my Windows mobile phone so I think having the codes available directly as images to be published in-line on a web page to be a distinct advantage.  So for me on this one I think that QR codes definitely have the edge as I would think that SVG and WMF could be used equally well by publishers (though if there are any publishers reading this who know differently then please add a comment to this post).

At this point it’s time to look at the software used to capture the code.  I’ve used my Samsung Omnia i900 as the capture device and two separate pieces of software for the capture of the codes.  For QR codes I’ve used the QuickMark Reader and for the Microsoft Tags the Microsoft Tag Reader.  In terms of user interface the two are very similar providing a framed viewer on the phone’s camera view and both automatically capture a code when they recognise it.  On the i900 however the QR code reader is definitely the easier to use to focus over the tag as the Microsoft Tag Reader inexplicably seems to rotate the image 90° anti-clockwise making it quite disorienting just to centre the code.  However the Microsoft Tag Reader seems capable of picking out and actioning much smaller tags than a the QuickMark Reader (which was the most accurate QR code reader I’ve found).

In my tests on an reading from an X-black LCD display an 88 x 88 pixel QR code for a URL was successfully read.  A Microsoft Tag for the same information was successfully captured for just a 52 x 52 pixel tag.  Less space for successful pick-up of codes is obviously an advantage as they take up less screen or page estate and so would cost less to put on a media advert for example and scaling up is not going to be an issue.

//rebootit.wordpress.com

QR Code

rebootit-tagcolour

Microsoft Tag

rebootit-tag-greyscale

Greyscale Tag

It was at this point that I wondered about the colour aspect of the Microsoft tag system so I thought I’d have a bit of an experiment and try a simple conversion of the colour tag to a greyscale tag – after all monochromatic printing is cheaper than colour printing.  It turned out that the Microsoft Tag Reader could still capture and interpret it so it looks like the encoding may be more to do with contrasts than the actual CYM colours.  However in greyscale the same basic tag used earlier could not be recognised at 52 x 52 pixels, but it was recognised at 73 x 73 pixels which is still significantly smaller than the equivalent QR code.

The greyscale tag is 97% larger in area that the colour tag and the QR code is 186% larger than the colour tag.  It may actually be that a vCard code can now fit on the back of a business card or be displayed on a phone screen such that a code reader enabled phone can now read the vCard straight in.

So assuming that the Microsoft Tag Reader rotation issue gets resolved for the Omnia then the size benefit of Microsoft’s HCCB system gives it quite a competitive edge, and being Microsoft there’s a little more to this competitive edge….

The Microsoft Tag system relies on the reader having an internet connection as all of the encoded links actually link to information held on Microsoft servers.  QR code decoding however requires no such connection.  The benefit of the Microsoft route is that the number of uses of a particular tag can be measured and reported on – which is great.  However if you want to use it to exchange a vCard on a midlands cross country train in the UK then you won’t have an Internet connection and it just won’t work.

So which is best QR codes of Microsoft Tags?  Well I personally think that the QR code system might have reached the end of its functionality pretty much.  The future is probably in some higher capacity data format.  However QR code readers are far more prevalent on today’s phones and so I think they still have some life left in them, particularly if you consider how embedded they are in Japanese society who are undoubtedly the leaders on mobile technology.

Microsoft Tag may however be the future – after all it is a beta.  So what do I think needs further development to move forward?

  • I’d like to se the niggly camera rotation problem on my Omnia resolved (and I’ll mail it in once I’ve posted this).
  • Add more encoded formats such as e-mail, geographic co-ordinates and calendar entries.
  • The option to decode non Internet related items (such as vCards) without an Internet connection.
  • Some additional guidelines on how to use the Microsoft Tags in greyscale to optimise the recognition on the reader (for reduced publishing costs).
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Quick Response Encoding

December 11, 2008

A little while back prompted  by a discussion doing the rounds on the Acadmy technical group I had a bit of a look into quick response codes (QR Codes).  These are a type of data matrix represented by a collection of  pixels in a square grid that are usualy used to represent something like a URL.

A number of pieces of software are available for today’s camera equipped mobile phones that allows these images to be decrypted and acted upon.  For example a QR code on a poster may allow a user with a suitably equipped mobile phone to take a snapshot of the code and immediately be taken to a particular web site on their phone’s browser.

Many phones come preloaded with the software and one of the most popular QR code readers is the Kaywa reader, however at the time my work phone was an HTC phone and Kaywa doesn’t support HTC phones.  Instead I managed to find a reader from a site called QuickMark.

The QuickMark reader seems to work as well as the Kaywa reader so there were no problems there and both are simple to use.

Both sites also offer encoding services.  Here I think there is a big difference…

The Kaywa Encoder (http://qrcode.kaywa.com/) is very simple to use and gives you the option to encode:

  • URL – simply the URL for a web site
  • Text – a piece of text
  • Phone Number – a telephone number
  • SMS – a phone number and a short piece of text to send

The URL I’ve already discussed, but the text can be used to do things such as reveal promotional information such as a web site password for a special offer or simply a fun message.  A phone number could be useful on a web site to save someone having to type it into their phone to call you. Finaly a predefined SMS could be used to request information to be texted back to the sender.  All fairly useful stuff I guess.

The Kaywa Encoder also allows you to select the size of the resulting PNG image to be produced upon encoding  – small, medium, large or extra large.

So what does the QuickMark Encoder have to offer?  Well it has lots more to offer … but it is a little bit harder to use.  First of all the list of things that can be encoded is much more extensive:

  • Website – a URL
  • Bookmark – a URL and a name for the bookmark
  • Phone call – a phone number
  • Send SMS – a phone number and a short piece of text to send
  • Send Email – an e-mail address, subject line and some content for the body of the message
  • Address Book – some basic contact details
  • meCard – contact details in meCard format (more than the address book option)
  • vCard – contact details in vCard format (more than the meCard option)
  • Text – a piece of text
  • Encryption – a piece of text encypted with a text based key
  • Partial Encryption – a display, an encrypted message and a text based key
  • Magic Jigsaw – a small image
  • Geographical Coordinates – a Google Maps location

Whilst some of these seem a little pointless to me the range is quite simply amazing as there’s even more listed under China Mobile DIY – presumably for QR code readers on mobile phones in China.

It doesn’t end there either.  The QR code can be downloaded in a number of file formats including PNG, GIF, JPG and SVG.  there’s also an option to view it as “raw text” which I guess is what the readers actually decodes it to and then executes.

So what about the size?  Well this is hidden away under advanced an option (found in the menu links on the left of the page).  It’s the last option and actually allows you to select from a staggering 30 different size options.  Along with this there are options to set the level of error correction for QuickMark (four levels) and QRcode (four levels) and the character set (six options).

After looking at this I really wanted to add a vCard to the back of my business card on a sticky label.  Unfortunately the more information, the larger the QR code needs to be and the ability to focus mobile phone cameras for what is effectively macro photography is frustrating when you look at the amazing reolution now available on modern phones.  The short if it is the technology isn’t quite there yet for this, but some of the QuickMark formats for infomation might spark off some good ideas such as using the geo co-ordinates for treasure hunts or contact details on office doors.

So how inventive can you be with all these encoding options at your disposal?