What are these black boxes? Rio installs QR codes in the sidewalk

Kelly O'Mara

You’ve seen them on the backs of magazines or in the doorways of restaurants – the weird black-and-white, mosaic-looking barcodes known as QR codes. But you probably never thought to look for them right under your feet, in the historic sidewalks of Rio de Janeiro.

On Jan. 25, the Brazilian city installed the first of many QR codes in the ground at Arpoador, the large boulder and popular tourist spot that separates Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. The barcode, which takes seven days to install, is embedded in the sidewalk using small tiles – similar to the other merely decorative mosaics nearby. Tourists can then snap a photo of it with their smartphone to pull up maps and tourist information in Portuguese, Spanish, and English.

The Department of Conservation, which partnered with a technology design firm and a marketing company for the QRIO Project, said it plans to put QR codes in 30 locations around the city by the end of the year and in 50 locations by the time the World Cup rolls into town in July 2014.

“It’s interesting, gimmicky,” said Troy Thompson, the founder of Travel 2.0 Consulting Group. But the problem is, it’s also confusing.

QR codes have long been heralded as the next great thing in tourism, used to attract tourists and provide information – without the language barrier that often comes with asking somebody for directions.

In 2012, the town of Monmouth, Wales (pop. 8,877) completed a comprehensive project to install nearly 1,000 QR codes and connect each code to a newly written Wikipedia entry on the respective monument or notable site.

The codes are very common and popular in London, where plenty of hotels and tourist attractions display them. They can be found on the nature trail at the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida and in places like San Antonio, where they guide visitors through the town’s River Walk. They’re also frequently used at visitor centers, where the QR code might pull up a customized video of the docent answering the five most common questions. One of the best uses of QR codes for tourists, Thompson said, was in Central Park in New York, where each code opened a video clip on your phone from "When Harry Met Sally" that was filmed in that exact spot.

Of course, for every well-done museum tour that connects a traveler to the information they need, there is a QR code that simply links to a webpage – annoying for a visitor who could have just typed the URL on their smartphone in the first place!

And, that’s if anyone can even figure out what they’re supposed to do with these black-and-white boxes in the first place.

“Joe traveler still doesn’t know what they are and you need to explain it to him,” said Thompson.

The codes have to be scanned into your smartphone by taking a picture. Then you have to download a QR app to read the code if you don’t have the app already. That app will then – hopefully – bring up the information, photos, videos or maps that you want. All of which assumes that you have a smartphone and an international data plan, if you’re traveling abroad.

Oh, and you have to know all this and recognize the codes, which may be hard if they look just like another mosaic in the sidewalk.

“I think that is a challenge,” said Thompson.