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New QR Codes Emulate ‘Hobo Symbols’ Of The Past

QR Code (credit: Free Art & Technology)

QR Code (credit: Free Art & Technology)

Alex Silverman Feature Image Alex Silverman
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NEW YORK (WCBS 880) - Technology is bringing a new life to a tradition that is over 100-years-old.

WCBS 880’s Alex Silverman Connects To The Story

Hobos were migrant workers who were all over the United States hopping train rides looking for work and shelter.

“In order to deal with the troubles and tribulations of nomadic life, they would leave these chalk marks on places, saying like ‘The owner of this place has a gun’ or ‘This place has a dangerous dog.’ ‘If you go here, you can work for food.’ [It was a] sort of secret visual language that they would use to communicate with each other,” says professor Golan Levin of Carnegie Mellon University.

These symbols were left all over cities including New York.

Now, Levin has made a piece of software, which he has released free to the public and combines the concept of those symbols with the now somewhat common QR code.

“[It] allows you specifically to make it into a stencil and this means that now QR codes could be, oh, I don’t know, spray painted on to buildings, for example, or chalked on buildings more easily,” says Levin.

Golan Levin (file / credit: Golan Levin and Collaborators)

Golan Levin (file / credit: Golan Levin and Collaborators)

He has already has come up with 100 different QR codes with messages you might need to go about modern life. Instructions and examples are located on his website (contains some adult language).

They include symbols for free Wi-Fi or a place that has a nice bathroom.

Others are speed trap, unexpectedly good coffee, and vegans beware.

People have wondered how a homeless person would utilize this technology.

“If you’re homeless, you probably do have a mobile phone because how else is anyone going to find you? It may be the only piece of technology you have and it’s kind of a critical lifeline,” Levin tells WCBS 880’s Alex Silverman. “In developing nations, where they’ve leapfrogged the whole copper infrastructure, wireless is taking off completely in Africa because you don’t have to lay cable anywhere.”

Of course, QR codes have thus far been mostly used for commerce – to try and sell a product or service.

“The idea that people can take this back for their own purposes, create urban messages that are not necessarily commercial advertising, I think that’s important,” says Levin.

To actually read a QR code, you can download any number of free apps for your smartphone.