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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

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NORRIS: You've likely seen one, probably lots of them by now, those funny looking little pixelated squares that have been popping up on billboards and in magazines and newspaper ads. They're called QR codes, or a quick response codes. And you're supposed to scan them with your cell phone camera.

As NPR's Sami Yenigun reports, marketing departments all over the country are coming up with clever ways to use them.

SAMI YENIGUN: Back in 1994 when barcodes ruled the digital scanning universe, the automotive components company Denso Wave Incorporated came up with a better way to track car parts for Toyota, QR codes. Now they're more than just axel trackers.

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YENIGUN: At the salad restaurants Sweetgreen in Washington, D.C., there's a huge square on the wall hanging over the napkin dispenser.

JAMES MITCHELL: It looks like some archaic game from the '80s.

YENIGUN: James Mitchell is waiting for a salad. He has a smartphone but doesn't know that he can use it to scan the pixelated code next to him. Neither does Rachel McLaughlin. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly characterized James Mitchell as unfamiliar with QR codes. He is in fact familiar with the technology but chooses not to use it.]

RACHEL MCLAUGHLIN: And it kind of looks like a television that's out of order.

YENIGUN: What Sweetgreen wants to McLaughlin to do is whip out her phone and take a picture of the broken television arcade-game-thing. Elizabeth Burkes knows what I'm talking about.

ELIZABETH BURKES: It's like one of those scanner things, where you just scan it and it tells you whatever information is behind it.

YENIGUN: A smartphone app will interpret the picture and link the phone to a website. Sweetgreen was an early adopter of QR.

MCKEE FLOYD: We would use them in stores and you snap a picture of the code. And then the link directs you to some sort of website. It could be a ticket to something. It could be a coupon.

YENIGUN: McKee Floyd is director of brand development for Sweetgreen. But Floyd is a QR skeptic. She says it takes too long to unlock your phone, fire up the app, take the picture, and wait for the page to load.

FLOYD: The issue that I have with QR codes is that, you know, marketing is a little bit like telling a joke. And the longer the joke, the better the punch line has to be. And QR code is a really long joke.

YENIGUN: According to a recent study from digital analyst comScore, a measly 6 percent of mobile subscribers currently use the technology. That 6 percent tends to be male, white and wealthy.

OLIVER WILLIAMS: That's partly why there hasn't been a massive uptake, although that's changing as the smartphone market starts to expand.

YENIGUN: Oliver Williams, founder of the online marketing agency Oliver Digital, says they're used for digital treasure hunts, for grocery shopping. They're on cupcakes, coasters and in catalogs. In Japan, where smartphones are more widely used...

WILLIAMS: There are people that are actually having QR codes put on their tombstones, so that when you go to scan them, you can see a photo of the person that died.

YENIGUN: Now, there's something on the horizon that both Williams and Floyd say could replace QR codes, and that's near field communication or NFC. This is being used for something QR isn't - paying for things. So instead of using your credit card to pay for your salad, you can just tap your phone to a plate by the register.

WILLIAMS: With near field communication, you're dealing with transactions that other people can profit from. And so, the banks have got an interest because they take a percentage.

YENIGUN: Last week, Google launched their first near field communication app, Google Wallet. It seems that by the time people finally figure out what QR codes are good for, they might just be swiping past them at the checkout line.

Sami Yenigun, NPR News.

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