You’re thousands of miles, maybe more, from the woman on screen. Perhaps that screen is a TV; perhaps it’s a tablet or computer monitor. The action is live broadcast, or streaming, or pre-recorded. She’s an activist engaged in righteous protest, a journalist reporting from a disaster zone, a web-cam model about to take her clothes off. It doesn’t matter. The point is, you would like to support her endeavors. You aim your smartphone camera at the barcode on her poster/backpack/boudoir and click. Within a few moments, your chosen donation – dollars or Bitcoin, a token or a ton – has been deposited into her account.
Welcome to the near future, friends.
Avenues for instantly and anonymously transferring from anywhere are still scarce, or at least scarcely utilized. That could change as soon as this year.
Apps such as Venmo have made phone payments easy, but these tools still work through traditional channels, with funds directly attached to your bank account and identity. And the lag time between receiving a payment and being able to spend that money may still be several days.
QR codes are poised to be a main driver of anonymous e-payment. QR codes are a type of optical barcode that can be read by an imaging device (such as a smartphone) and quickly converted into an action, such as opening a particular URL or following someone on Snapchat. There are financial applications, too. A QR code can be scanned to send Bitcoin to someone’s digital wallet or to purchase underwear from a bus stop advertisement.
Though they were first employed by a Japanese automaker in the early 1990s to track cars through the assembly-line process, QR codes didn’t catch on among Japanese consumers for another decade. In the West they’ve been a bit like the proverbial “fetch” – just not happening, despite the best efforts of techies, marketers and mobile phone companies.
But there’s evidence this may be shifting. In 2015 Snapchat assigned each user a QR code that, when scanned, adds people as followers. In May it made them available in downloadable vector versions that users can put on websites, posters or whatever. DJ Steve Aoki said he plans to project his Snapcode onto large LED screens at his concerts. TechCrunch’s Josh Constine recently opined that Snapchat has “made QR codes cool again.”
The versatility of QR codes is a big part of their appeal. A code can be scanned and read from a TV broadcast or a YouTube video, a business card, a Twitter profile, even a necktie. At the Netherlands’ Modez Hotel, one room is outfitted in QR code wallpaper, drapes and furniture, with each code linked to a bit of erotica, a sexy photo or an adult film clip.
Vodafone Romania has created customizable adhesive wallpaper that doubles as a digital library. After selecting which books they want on the “shelves,” customers simply scan a QR code built into each image to access a digital copy. The new Polaroid allows for adding QR quotes to printed photos. In Stockholm, QR codes on condom packaging led people to an app for measuring rhythm and duration during sex.
In 2013, a student at Alabama’s Auburn University held up a poster with a QR code for his Bitcoin account on a live ESPN broadcast. He was anonymously gifted about $24,000 worth of the cryptocurrency.
In May 2015, University of Southern California senior Hunter Peterson tried the same on a smaller scale, advertising a Bitcoin code on his graduation cap during the ceremony. “I totally thought nothing would come of it, but instead, people actually utilized it,” he told me. “Complete strangers!” Peterson netted about $34.
So far, Bitcoin users have been among the most enthusiastic adopters of QR codes in America. Scanning a QR code for someone’s Bitcoin wallet allows you to send them a specified amount of the digital currency. Individual Bitcoin users broadcast these codes on everything from social media pages to 3D-printed jewelry. Small business owners can accept Bitcoin by posting a QR code sign.
“Forget about Bitcoin as an investment vehicle, or Bitcoin as a way to end the Federal Reserve,” wrote economist Bill Conerly in February. “Its benefit to business comes from payments.”
One major advantage of Bitcoin (and similar decentralized digital currencies) is that there are no processing fees to contend with. Credit cards charge merchants a small processing fee per transaction, making them unattractive for low profit-margin businesses and rendering micropayments prohibitively expensive. But Bitcoin users can exchange the currency in units as small as one-hundred millionth of a Bitcoin, called a satoshi. Without these middleman fees, there’s no harm trafficking in tiny exchanges. The full amount, no matter how meager, is exchanged between Bitcoin sender and recipient.
This could be huge for digital content creators. Using traditional currency and financial services, it’s neither convenient nor cost-effective to pay very small amounts per article, or song. Hence, fans frequently pay nothing. But would those who balk at pay walls and subscription fees be more comfortable directly tipping folks’ whose work they enjoy? Provided it’s both easy and priced right, many think so.
QR codes are proving a viable and versatile option for accomplishing this. One service, called ChangeTip, utilizes QR codes to support Bitcoin micropayments on platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, Reddit, Soundcloud and StockTwits. Others are working on a platform-independent version of this system. Tech and privacy writer Kashmir Hill predicts the first journalist “who is an all-Twitter reporter all the time” will be partly funded through a Bitcoin QR code in their profile.
QR codes are also used to facilitate mobile payments with regular currency. In South Africa, it’s common for restaurants to print QR codes on checks. Some U.K. companies send out paper bills with QR codes attached to encourage smartphone payments. Here we see the same potential drawbacks associated with any bank or credit affiliated system: slower deposits, higher transaction fees, less privacy. But in general, mobile payments may be less risky (and more convenient) than carrying around cash or physically handing over cards.
QR does have several significant rivals in the mobile payment realm. Banks have been developing their own ways to facilitate real-time electronic transfers. Apple Pay and its ilk rely on something called near-field communication (NFC) technology, which has now been adopted by U.S. chain stores like Macy’s, Best Buy and Target. Yet credit-card processing fees can still apply with Apple Pay, which makes it less attractive for small businesses and entrepreneurs. NFC tech also relies on payer and payee being near one another—good for shopping at the mall, but not so much for less traditional exchanges.
Regardless of whether it will win the mobile pay wars, QR is gaining ground in America. At Grendel’s Den in Harvard Square, customers can use a technology called SplitNGo to pay the check without using any particular app; a small card at each table provides a QR code customers can scan at the end of a meal to pay (and split) the bill.
The app Zapper recently launched in more than a dozen U.S. cities, allowing food truck and restaurant customers to pay via check QR code. And CurrentC, a new Walmart-spearheaded digital wallet, allows customers to pay via QR code at a growing number of major retailers.
There are also do-good possibilities, and not just in nonprofits using social media for direct Bitcoin fundraising. In Seattle, homeless street vendors have long peddled newspapers, but sales were flagging in the face of increasingly cashless passersby. Now, by downloading an app, residents can simply scan a QR code on the seller’s badge to pay.
As we already mentioned, activists could add QR codes to protest signs, thereby enabling anyone who sees the activity via TV, Twitter or wherever to donate to the cause. ChangeTip recently raised funds for Nepalese earthquake victims by soliciting Bitcoin donors. Disaster relief funding this way can help circumvent corrupt governments that would otherwise seize or misspend funds.
And there are sexy possibilities. Rapper TP3’s recent video imagined a near-future stripper who accepted Bitcoin tips via QR-code tattoo. A handful of strip clubs, escort agencies and other adult-oriented businesses already accept Bitcoin payments, which come with the advantage of not showing up on customers’ bank statements or credit card bills. And for those working in the sex industry, it allows for less reliance on banks and PayPal, which are notoriously hesitant to do business with even legal adult trades.
The growing popularity of both Bitcoin and QR-enabled payments is already attracting the attention of overzealous government regulators. In 2014 the Chinese government banned QR code payments entirely. U.S. lawmakers have largely been silent on this front, though they’re plenty anxious to exert some control over cryptocurrencies.
North Carolina is considering regulating Bitcoin processors as “money transmitters,” thus requiring them to be licensed by the state and submit to a slew of new (and expensive) regulations. New York is planning “BitLicense”rules for virtual currency exchanges. In New Jersey, state tax officials are making retailers who accept Bitcoin collect double the sales tax (effectively killing the cheaper-payment-processing advantage of Bitcoin).
If we can avoid the regulatory pitfalls, the possibilities – for consumers, creators, small businesses, charities, and more – are manifold. Even barring widespread adoption of Bitcoin anytime soon, QR codes and other mobile payment tools may prove quite useful, allowing all of us to make purchases more quickly and without the inherent risks in carrying cards or cash.
No, we may not be tipping code-tattooed strippers in cryptocurrency or purchasing QR-coded products direct from TV commercials just yet. But paying for food-truck tacos with just your phone, tipping your favorite Reddit user and coming to the aid of activists anonymously, and in real time, will soon be a breeze.