The World: Insider's view - Japan

Tokyo seems to be obsessed with technology, Mark Webster writes, which is why the QR barcode has begun to flourish in the city's bustling retail hubs.

Relocating to any new city can be a particularly unsettling experience, having to grapple with new cultures and new customs. Having happily lived in many Asian countries, my recent move to Tokyo has been, for me, pretty high up on the scale of bewilderment.

It's not just the obvious Lost in Translation factor, but it's this great city's preoccupation with all things technological. It seems everything is automated and automatic.

One aspect of this technological obsession that has caught my eye is the QR (Quick Response) code. It's a scannable barcode that appears on product packaging, in print ads, on leaflets, posters, catalogues, etc. The code allows you to scan it with your mobile phone (take a photo of it), which then immediately connects you to more product data or to the advertiser's website.

This type of code allows a huge amount of information to be stored compared with traditional barcodes - 7,089 alphanumeric characters versus a maximum of 30 for barcodes.This means brands can include detailed product specifications, special promotions and retail data.

Originally developed years ago for car-parts supply-chain management, they found their way into the consumer domain via the recent proliferation of camera phones.

Ride on the Metro (where talking on your mobile is socially unacceptable) and watch hordes of commuters staring at their mobile screens.

Secretaries are looking at leisure-wear fashion shows and buying products direct from the catwalk, salary-men are checking out the baseball scores or the latest Manga adventures, and then downloading coupons with discounts for a beer at their local on the way home.

The leap from trigger to choice and purchase in the buying cycle has been narrowed dramatically. In this dynamic environment, brands have to be relevant and responsive, and know how to start and maintain a dialogue, or they will be passed over.

QR codes are making the most of mobile marketing by appearing in traditional channels and bridging the gap to digital commerce, as well as popping up in other places. Busy retail areas such as Shibuya, on buildings, on postcard marketing, in bars and nightclubs, and in stores.

What's interesting is you can target certain types of consumer and identify specific city hotspots by having different messages in the codes at different locations. That allows you to monitor the success of the message and adapt accordingly.

Just last week someone gave me their business card with a huge QR code on it so I could scan their contact details into my phone and get a map to locate their office. They worked for a company specialising in interactive media. In a market like this I'm sure to be talking to them a great deal, and I'm looking forward to a quick response.