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QR codes in academic poster presentations: A case study at ICCAI 2011

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I’ve found that most people don’t know what a QR code is, so let me explain. A QR code is a 2d barcode that contains some content (typically a URL) and is intended to be scanned by a smartphone camera. You often see them in ads, linking to a product’s website or something. I recently (very recently… I wrote most of this while I was delayed at the airport on my trip home) presented a poster at ICCAI 2011, and I tried to use all this fancy smartphone scanning technology to enhance my poster.

Let me be academic about this. First, the literature review. Several other people have blogged about QR codes in similar contexts. Others have suggested to use QR codes on posters to link to a personal website or your contact info or a copy of the poster/paper or various other things.

The most detailed account of this kind of thing basically concluded that nobody knows how to use QR codes, nobody wants to use QR codes, and thus nobody actually will read whatever extra content you put on your poster — even if you bribe people with a contest and a prize.

But whatever. It’s fun.

So basically, as far as I can tell, QR codes have been used for two things.

  1. Self-promotion
  2. Linking to content that would have been on your poster, if only you had an infinitely large poster

Both of those are extremely important and clever applications of QR codes in the context of an academic poster presentation. But I want to go a little deeper:

What about things that can’t possibly be included in a poster? Things that nobody is expecting to see at all in a poster presentation? I’m talking about multimedia, interactive demos, that type of thing. The transition from old school projectors to PowerPoint presentations opened up those options for talks, but posters are still stuck in the 20th century until Apple releases the iPoster in 2021. But with QR codes and fellow academics armed with smartphones and tablets, we don’t need to wait for the iPoster.

Obviously, the extent to which QR codes can be used to enhance a poster presentation depends highly on the subject matter. My latest poster presentation was an obvious candidate for an interactive demo. I was presenting a fairly simple model that can execute very quickly. So it was fairly easy to write a web interface to the model that allows people to play around with initial conditions and parameter values and see what happens. I translated my MATLAB code to Python, wrote a simple web interface using web.py, and I gave it a pretty iPhone-like UI with jQuery Mobile (caveat: I needed to hack it to get the slider widget working correctly). The end result? Well, I don’t have it up anymore because I don’t want the whole Internet hammering my server, but here’s what it looked like:

I put a QR code and a shortened URL (as not everyone has a QR code reader) on my poster thus completing the easy parts of all this. The only thing remaining was the hard part: getting people to actually use it and seeing if they think it’s useful. I showed it to a few people before the conference, and the universal response was “What’s a QR code? Oh, that’s pretty cool”… but how does that translate when I’m talking to strangers at a conference?

At the conference, there was a formal poster walk around, so like 30 people came at once and I got 3 minutes to talk to all of them. In my 3 minutes, I made a plug for the QR code and the live web-based demo. Nobody reached for a smartphone. In smaller conversations, I continued to plug it. My favorite response was (with a good natured smile), “I would look at it, but I don’t give a damn”.

But my poster was up for 2 full days, so maybe someone tried my demo when I wasn’t there. I eagerly checked my server access logs when I got home. The end result? Three people accessed my demo. And only one of them played around with the options.

But whatever, it was fun.

1 comment »

  1. Jeremy, I’m hearing you. Nice write up; And thx for linking.
    The interactive web app for your data is a brilliant idea, sorry to read that you had the same somewhat disappointing experience; but I agree, it’s fun. It still is.
    Science is just not there yet, go iPoster 2021!

    Comment by Gregor — November 9, 2011 @ 6:54 am

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