Japanese food data: a model for m-learning?

29 11 2006

In Japan, 2D barcodes are used to provide consumer information for a range of food products, allowing consumers to make informed choices. But could this model of tagging products with digital “links” also be used to enable both informal, lifelong, situated learning, as well as enhanced safety and first-aid practices in the future?

More and more people outside of Japan are catching on to the concept of encoding information that can be read by ordinary cellphones. Microsoft have only recently implemented a beta version of such a system with Windows Live Barcode; but in Japan, over 30 million people already use their mobile phones to digitally retrieve information from advertising, media, and food packaging, using QR Codes (as illustrated below).


Hank Green at the Treehugger blog notes the kind of information consumers might want to know about the food they’re buying, to enable them to make informed choices:

We need to tell where it came from, what it contains, the labor conditions of it’s harvest, how it’s going to taste, if it’s good for us, and whether we’re getting a good deal.

Hank further notes that the use of QR Codes to provide consumer information is common practice in Japan:

Almost all cell phones sold in Japan today contain QR code readers, and the Japanese Food Safety commission has already begun to notice preferential purchase of locally grown foods due to the QR tags. It turns out that knowing more about food actually results in buyers making better decisions…who’d have guessed!? Now I guess we’re just going to have to wait for the rest of the world to catch up.

Here’s an example of some sandwiches labelled with QR Codes – as a consumer, you would be able to find out everything you need to know about them with an ordinary cameraphone, loaded with reader software:

Encoded product information like this could provide a model for creating informal, lifelong, ubiquitous, situated mobile learning. Although QR Codes can store over 4,000 alpha-numeric characters within a single barcode, information could also be accessed via a QR Code containing a URL – launching a product web page for any product that provides details of what it is, what it does, or what it’s made of. The model need not be retricted to food items – potentially, clothing (manufacture & care instructions), tools (model & safety data), or chemicals (materials safety data sheets), for example, could benefit from this approach.

A student or worker who needed information on a particular chemical or tool would be able to access the information when and where they needed it. Since many first aid situations, for example, occur inconveniently far from an internet-connected computer, accessing materials safety data anywhere would be an enormous advantage, that could help save lives, as well as provide learning opportunities.

In a completely different industry, QR Code links on garment care instructions could enable students, trainees or workers in fashion or retail industries develop their knowledge of garment manufacturing processes and materials. Consumers would also have more ability to make informed decisions about locally or ethically manufactured products, to enable them to make better choices.

I think it’s going to be several years before we might start seeing products labelled with digital “links” to more information in this way; much depends on mobile telecommunications manufacturers and/or providers seeing the potential of these technologies to provide a useful data service for their users, and incorporating 2D barcodes into mobile handsets at point-of-sale (or manufacture), to remove the need for users to locate and install their own software.

However, with widespread use and obvious success in Japan, I’m sure that it’s just a matter of time before the technology becomes readily available in other parts of the world, triggering a global surge in user-centric mobile data use.

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2 responses

30 11 2006


Two things:
Check the codecheck.ch project.
By the way I also wrote something about this here.

I think it will take less time then expected. If Motorola, Nokia and Microsoft all start using QR Codes this a very strong sign and we definitely will see more phones coming out with pre-built-in QR readers. Also, the biggest telco – China Mobile – is backing the new Motorola, so…

6 12 2006
Mobile Learning » Carnival of the Mobilists, Edition 56

[…] The 56th Edition of the Carnival of the Mobilists is being hosted this week at Mopocket, and includes my article on the use of product QR Codes in Japan as a model for informal mobile learning. […]

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