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The QR Code Story

By Steve Kerss & Simon Campbell-Jones

How the Social History Trail came to life


The idea of a social-history trail based on those buried at Smallcombe was one of our project’s principal aims. The last thing we wanted to do, however, was to detract from the atmospheric beauty of the cemetery by planting a forest of information boards. 


We also hoped to do very much better than simply listing the names and the dates of our chosen subjects, along with brief biographies. Rather, our ideal was to produce short and compelling films, viewable on smartphones at our chosen subjects’ gravesides, as well as on our website, which would not only illuminate lives gone by, but also transport viewers back in time to Victorian or Edwardian Bath. 


Quick-Response (QR) code technology appeared to provide the means to do this, so once we had established that a 4G-phone signal of good strength was available at Smallcombe we decided to experiment.


We discovered that these codes could be printed onto suitable vinyl-coated paper which was weatherproof for at least five years, and that this printing process was readily available at our local high street printshop, Minuteman. (photo 1)


Using a QR-code App package, we designed 12 codes, each with a small photo or a graphic representation of our chosen subject in the centre, and their name printed beneath. We then proved that the technology worked by setting up a QR link from the cemetery back to our website. This done, we realised that the concept offered so much more scope; indeed we could link back to film stored on Vimeo, using a process which proved quite straightforward.


So we now had the means, but what we lacked was the content, and here Simon Campbell-Jones, a member of the Smallcombe team and formerly an executive producer of the world-renowned BBC Horizon series generously stepped forward to offer his expertise gratis. (photo 2)


Simon began by making a trial film about his grandfather, who is buried at Smallcombe. Meanwhile, I, an ex-IT man with an engineering background, set about manufacturing our first weatherproof QR code: a self-adhesive label applied to a copper plate 150x75mm and then mounted on a block of Bath stone. The stone with its QR code can then be placed conveniently by the grave. (photo 3 & 4)


A few weeks later, with Simon’s first film completed and a free QR-code App loaded on my smartphone, Simon and I tried our first live experiment early one spring morning. Even though we knew the technology would work, we were stunned by the outcome. The fact that we could stand by his grandfather’s grave and watch a fascinating, high-production-quality, two-minute video story about events in Bath during the last century brought history to life, all without detracting from the enchanting atmosphere of Smallcombe.


Aided by an eight-strong team of volunteer researchers, Simon went on to create a further eleven, much-lauded video stories each full of fascinating images of Bath in Victorian and Edwardian times.


The success of the QR codes meant that we needed just one information board at Smallcombe (by the main entrance gates) both to display a map of the site and the locations of the codes, and to give visitors enticing snippets of the cemetery’s numerous and previously untold stories. A printable copy of the map was also made available from the website.   (photos 5 & 6)


What lessons have we learnt and what advice do we have for others interested in this approach? 


Before committing to this form of information presentation, do check out the signal strength of mobile networks at the location. If you are thinking of adopting video as we did, then 4G-capability is essential.


Producing QR codes is straightforward and there are free Apps available to create them, but if you want to collect statistics on the number of hits for each code then that comes at a price, in the form of an annual licence fee for the App.


Mounting a QR code on stone or any other material as we did, is both simple and inexpensive for someone with reasonable practical skills.


The real challenge lies in creating film which marries fascinating content with a format and presentation style that captures and holds its audience. In-depth local-history research is fundamental to the process: equally important is the film-maker’s expertise in order to produce video which is concise, intriguing and informative. 


As Simon Campbell-Jones explains: “The original concept had been audio only, rather like a museum.  You would listen to your phone.  But the screen would just be empty.  So for the trial film about my grandfather, I thought  I could use a few photographs from my family archive.  In fact we could use a string of pictures and it would become a ‘film’, well, a short video of stills.  I wrote some words in a vaguely linear way – the story of my grandparents’ arrival in Bath during WW2 - and recorded it onto my desktop. Using Final Cut Pro software, I edited the pictures to it. (I could have used iMovie which comes with today’s Apple computers or Windows which has Media Player.) The effect was more powerful than I expected.  Still pictures make you look longer.  In fact, with a couple of exceptions, none of the QR videos has any moving pictures.  It somehow takes you back in time.


“But standing by a grave in the open air watching and listening to your smartphone is not a cinematic experience. The urge is to move on. So we aimed to keep the lengths to about two minutes, which is still quite a long time if you stare at your watch.  The crucial part however is the research.  At a Smallcombe meeting organised by Steve, visitors were invited to volunteer some of their time to find out more about just one of the graves.  It took longer than they thought, especially when I asked them to supply some pictures as well. But they found it fascinating and it took them to places they didn’t expect, not only on Google, but on the road, as well as in and around Bath, with its plentiful supply of museums, council archives and local-history societies. I enjoyed putting each package together in a journalist and entertaining way. To quote a BBC colleague: "Any short film should be a surprise and a delight". I am most grateful to all the researchers, especially for subjecting themselves to my directing as they recorded the words they had written into my computer.”


The critical success factor therefore is the film-maker’s experience.


Smallcombe’s videos have had some 800 viewings to date (as at December 2017) and those who view are genuinely amazed and full of praise. 


As to whether the general public is fully embracing QR-code technology, the answer appears to be not quite yet. One only has to visit supermarkets which offer self-scan as you buy, using a hand-held scanner, to see that most prefer instead to queue at conventional checkouts. Yet those, both young and old, who are familiar with QR’s simple-to-use technology, and who come to Smallcombe with their free scan-App loaded on their smartphones, are delighted by the experience.


We predict that QR usage will accelerate owing both to the scan-App facility now coming in-built in many new phones; also because supermarkets and other shops are offering scan-Apps for self-scan using the customer’s own smartphone. For now, Smallcombe is a little ahead of the game, but we remain convinced that this is the right way forward and that the take-up will grow.


Why not visit Smallcombe to experience our QR-coded social-history trail for yourself?

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