Digital symbology needs a redesign. Barcodes aren’t universal, and QR codes–which are–have never caught on. Together, they’re a fairly disgraceful conduit between real life and digital life. Artists have attempted to pretty up these scannable data codes by assimilating logos into QR codes and using them as the basis of glitch art, and barcodes’ vertical lines have been treated as design elements for more eye-catching package design. But generally speaking, consumers will only use technologies that are people friendly–much to the consternation of retail stores and advertisers, whose in-store barcode scanners and QR marketing campaigns inevitably flop.
But what if machine-readable codes were human-enjoyable as well?
They’re called aestheticodes, and they’re the brainchild of Steve Benford, a professor in the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham, England. In a video produced by the YouTube channel Computerphile, Benford demonstrates how they work using the experimental aestheticodes mobile app, outlining what he calls a new experience for what he calls “visual code recognition technology.” His goal: To decorate the world with interesting, interactive surfaces.
A technique using “the topology of an image as a way of encoding information” was invented by Enrico Costanza, a physical sciences and engineering professor at the University of Southampton. It works like this: A shape with a certain number of connected regions with a certain amount of “blobs” in each of these regions forms the encoded illustration. Similar images can have different codes, and different designs can carry the same information. The secret is in the redundancy of the pattern in the image, creating a more robust code pattern.
Clever designers are able to exploit the visual processing of both computers and human eyes with this method. Cameras aren’t designed to the laws of prägnanz, or ordering proprioceptive experience the way human eyes and brains are. Cosmetic embellishments can be added to prettify the image while keeping the central code in tact, and humans barely notice them. We just perceive it to be a complex illustration.
Ricoh, the printer and copier company, has another solution it calls Clickable Paper. It lets users take a picture of, say, a pair of jeans you really like in a magazine, and directs you to a screen of multiple links instead of a specific website. But we prefer this method, which becomes a kind of hybrid machine-human art form.
The concept was introduced to the ceramic design department at Central Saint Martin’s, the art school in London, where students screened designs onto conceptual plates and menus for a Thai restaurant chain. Want the recipe for the food you just ate? Snap a picture of your plate. The day’s offerings? The cherry blossoms on the front of the menu will tell you just that.
Right now, Benford sees scalability and confusion as the biggest limitations to aestheticodes’ implementation in reality. In theory, there are an arbitrary number of regions per code, and a phone might not be able to interpret a large-scale image. Users may be confused as to how they’re supposed to be interacting with a beautiful yet slyly encoded image. Benford says the solution to that are clear, contrasty visual cues cameras can pick up–like, say, a penguin.