Using QR Codes to Identify and Track Your Stuff

Introduction: Using QR Codes to Identify and Track Your Stuff

Anyone who's moved house knows what a horrid thing that could be. I'm currently outprocessing, which means lots of boxes and packing and other kinds of misery. One of my problems is this: how do you know where a particular item is? You haven't unpacked, but you desperately need Kissinger's Diplomacy. What do you do? Unpack all book boxes?

During last night, which I spent pretty sleepless, I invented a cute little method for resolving this issue, at least to an extent, using QR codes. Here's the general idea: you can encode up to 180 characters in a single QR block. That's enough for a rough description of what's in the box, so you won't start digging, to the great annoyance of the CinC of the Household, in the porcelain box when you're looking for a book on IR. It doesn't need to be a complete manifest, and if you truly want a complete manifest, you can always make a spreadsheet - I'll discuss that in a separate step. 

The best about this is that it's incredibly low-cost, and it allows you to make faster insurance claims if something is damaged, quick decisions when your house gets flooded (women, children and your priceless collection of Star Wars figurines first) and a good way to ID the content of boxes without having to flop around with brown tape.

There is a video version of the whole lark, which may be more illustrative than a verbal description. The downside is that it features my annoying head and voice. Click here for video version .

So - let's roll!

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Step 1: Step 1: the Manifest

If you've seen cargo manifests, they're endless and terribly detailed. Yours should fit into 180 characters. So be concise. It's worthwhile to put three pieces of info in the manifest:
- what general kind of stuff is inside: books, household items, and so on,
- where particular things go, e.g. if a box is designated to go into the study because it contains all your books, then it should contain a reference to that,
- if there are particularly important items, mention them. So e.g. as you can see, I mentioned my Wacom as a particular item, because I may need it before unpacking.

Think of the manifest as the dog tag of the box. Consider the brevity of a dog tag - name, serial, service, blood type, faith. It focuses on what's necessary to know on a battlefield. Think like writing a dog tag. Brevity is cool.

If you see the attached image, I left the QR code speak. I have a box identification system that consists of a class letter and three numbers, which are sequential and which are also in the sequence the goods would be packed into a lorry. Tricky, but not impossible!

Step 2: Step 1.5: the Optional Spreadsheet

It's up to you whether you do this step. I'd recommend it, but of course it depends on your circumstances.

I've numbered my boxes according to a pretty intricate system, but there's no need for that really - one, two, three will do quite well. You may use a letter prefix to signify class or nature of the goods, like K for kitchen goods, B for books and so on.

In my slightly overdone spreadsheet, you can see a couple of useful features of building a spreadsheet. For one, my books are ordered according to the Dewey decimal system. That means that when I took them and shoved them into a box, I knew what's where. If I want a particular book, I look up the Dewey number and instantly know which box it is in. The mention of format is useful in planning which box you want to die with as it breaks your spine into tiny little pieces when you try to lift it. Check is basically a checkbox, and the value estimate is useful if your storage insurance needs it. As said, you can get by completely well without the whole spreadsheet nonsense.

Step 3: Step 2 or 3, As You Please: Putting the Identifiers On

This is reasonably simple. You need a printer (you really don't need to invest in a label maker), a QR code translator (there are several on the web, I found this 'un pretty good) and some sort of labels. Labels that are long but not particularly tall are quite good because you can put the QR code on one end and the 'human-readable' stuff on the other. I used Avery J5103 labels, primarily because I have a lot of them as a Royal Mail SmartStamp user, secondarily because it's got a very convenient form for this application. The example you see is a label for my blender, as it's not a box, so it's designated an Asset. I did my work mainly in Avery's Mac-compatible Design Pro app, with a dingy OfficeJet 4500 - so you don't need high-end equipment for it, and indeed any text editor that can handle labels will do.

Putting the whole thing together is where magic happens. You generate the QR code from whatever dog tag text you figured out. You save the image to wherever you save stuff you will need in a sec, and put it into your label by whatever import function or similar your app has. The other end will be the human-readable part. Congrats, you printed  a QR-readable ID.

Step 4: Step 4: Profit ;)

If any of this sounded complicated, stop worrying. It's easy. Walk in the park.

QR codes are very useful to compress information. It's ok to have multiple code blocks on the same label, though you'll need distance between them so the camera doesn't need to go into the blur zone to distinguish them. Besides, it kinda makes you look like a HK Triad. 

Of course, you'll need something to decode it with. Currently, I don't know of anyone who can read QR without a computer, but any iPhone can be used to read and decode QR blocks. There are dozens of iPhone, 'droid and other apps to read QR - it's very popular in Asia, esp. in S Korea, as an advertising instrument. The household use of QR has not been explored too much yet. Which is a shame, because it can make a piss annoying time like outprocessing a tad less stressful.

A video version of this Instructable is available. There's an all-nighter warning on it, I haven't had sleep for about 72 hours, so I may look like death. If you want to risk seeing my ugly mugshot, click here.

(I'm interested in any weird, crazy ideas people come up with involving QR. Let me know if you're completely insane and have come up with something flashy involving QR)

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    3 Discussions


    3 years ago

    I found this in hopes of labeling my 25 very large and very heavy storage bins with a lot of information in a tiny code . My thought was that the qr code would be scanned and a spreadsheet would pop up and show the entire contents of the box without having a giant pc of paper taped to the outside of each bin. Is that not how this would work ?


    3 years ago

    Like many applications I've seen, this one seems to use QR just for the sake of using QR :)

    E.g., instead of the QR, why not print the plain text onto the labels? Being able to just read it with your very own eyes seems much quicker to me than having to whip out your phone and start up the camera/app all the time...