QR-Codes and Augmented Reality Tattoos

I was recently asked if I’d seen the “animated tattoo” that was recently done for the first time, and I replied that I didn’t think this was possible with current technology. The person who asked me the question did a little searching, and discovered that it wasn’t truly an animated tattoo — the tattoo didn’t move — but a tattoo of a QR-code type link that would cause a cellphone to display a specific YouTube video designed to sit as the center piece of the tattoo. This is the very misleadingly labeled news report they got back to me with:

The tattoo was done by French tattooist K.A.R.L. in June of 2011, and claimed to be the “first ever” animated tattoo, but of course readers of ModBlog know that it is neither an animated tattoo, nor is it even the first “augmented reality” tattoo of this type — let alone a particularly impressive one. For example, in May of last year, before K.A.R.L. did this PR stunt, Rob had already covered the subject of augmented reality tattoos here on ModBlog, and over the years many have been posted. A simple search shows that QR-code tattoos like the one K.A.R.L. claims to have invented, are not only incredibly common, but are regularly used in marketing in the form of temporary tattoos.

However — and this is a big “however” — people considering this should be aware that QR-tattoos do not translate well to skin. For starters, most tattoo artists are not particularly adept at the sharp and consistent linework and geometric perfection that QR-Codes demand, and to make matters worse, the undulating contours of the skin are anything but flat, and while QR readers are able to compensate for skew (taking a picture of the code at an angle), they are not able to compensate for warping that comes from the code being on a surface with multiple curves. This limits QR-code tattoos not only to the best artists, but to flat areas of the body. I took a random sample of ten clear pictures of QR-code tattoos, and tried to scan them. I was successful only with two of them. It’s likely that in real life, with careful repositioning and better lighting that I might be able to scan a couple more, but I don’t see more than half of QR-code tattoos being functional, which is pretty depressing — it’s the digital equivalent of a spelling mistake so bad as to make your quote gibberish.


You can zoom that in and see if your phone does any better if you want.

In addition to QR-code tattoos — which are really just an odd way of writing text data that I would argue would be better achieved just using regular letters — there are augmented reality tattoos. These don’t just give your phone a URL. They actually provide a “junction point” for the world of virtual reality to interface with your body. As you may have realized if you read Rob’s article, they provide your phone or computer information about the location, size, and orientation of your body by showing it a symbol that it can recognize from many angles. The computer is then able to take the video shot of your phone and add three-dimensional elements that move synchronized with your body’s movements — thus the term augmented reality. You can find more videos with a simple search for “augmented reality tattoo”, but let me show you a couple relevant videos to get you started. The first one, of the dragon, is from 2009 and one of the first that I know of. The second is more recent, but notable because it uses a realistic skull as its recognition symbol, showing that you don’t have to use a blocky icon that instantly identifies your tattoo as a digital interface.

I know, this falls far short of what people hope for when they hear the words “animated tattoo”, but it’s a start. It shows the dreams that people have for their bodies. It also points out that people are starting to see their bodies as interfaces to the virtual world, which is an important first step for cyberpunk and transhumanist body modification. One day we will surely have animated tattoos in the literal sense, but these QR-code and augmented reality tattoos are an unrelated trend — they are however very interesting for their own merits.

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About Shannon Larratt

Shannon Larratt is the founder of BME (1994) and its former editor and publisher. After a four year hiatus between 2008 and 2012, Shannon is back adding his commentary to ModBlog. It should be noted that any comments in these entries are the opinion of Shannon Larratt and may or may not be shared by BMEzine.com LLC or the other staff or members of BME. Entry text Copyright © Shannon Larratt. Reproduced under license by BMEzine.com LLC. Pictures may be copyright to their respective owners. You can also find Shannon at Zentastic or on Facebook.

18 thoughts on “QR-Codes and Augmented Reality Tattoos

  1. Two more of the QR code tattoos scanned for me. The one in the first row, third column says “thevoice66″ and the one below it says “http://scanco.de/1iP” (The Random Tattoo, although it only seems to generate random content when viewed with the QR reader).

  2. When I scan the images with an iPhone 4S using Scan app, I get:

    First, top row: “hold on”
    Second, top row: “thevoice66″
    Third, middle row: a link to a Coldplay video
    Fourth, middle row: Maci Clare Peltz
    Second, bottom row: SPECIES5618
    Fourth, bottom row: danperron.com

  3. I’m not going to pretend that I understand what’s going on, I can barely use my laptop. But surely that would work about as well as barcode tattoos? The surface is changeable and difficult to scan, so I wouldn’t expect much longevity from it, technologically speaking.

  4. omg….so THIS is the new barcode tattoo?? If anyone comes into the shop and asks for one, i will point to the door. Just when you think things couldnt get any lamer…..

  5. I was only able to scan two more, in addition to the one’s in the last column… Second, top row, and third, middle row. The third, middle row one is pretty cool cause it changes every time you scan it! First it was a picture of a toucan, then a gif of two headbanging blondes, then a picture of the rage faces.

  6. Okibi – I used something called “Quick Scan” which was the best rated app I saw in the store that was also free… glad to see you got four more than I did… Still… 60% success rate isn’t the greatest.

    Olive – I think they work a bit better than barcodes, but yeah, that’s my concern too.

    KT – Unfortunately it seems that is what they did in their excitement.

    Lily – I think it’s a step nerdier than barcodes… A lot of people were getting barcodes as a general “symbol” so it didn’t even matter if the barcode worked… All these QR code tattoos are at least SUPPOSED to work.

  7. I’m sure it works better when you actually scan the skin, not a crappy photo.
    I don’t think they’re great tattoos, but i like them better than traditional 1d meaningless barcode tattoos.

  8. I have an appointment booked in about a month for a QR code tattoo. It will be my first, and probably only tattoo I’ll get. I’m a computer professional, and the code (a link to my personal domain) will be relevant to me whether it scans or not in the future. It’s also not a new idea to me — I remember thinking I’d like a (2D) barcode tattoo when I was in high school 20+ years ago.

    I have put a *lot* of thought and research into this, and am of the opinion that a lot of the tattoos pictured here and elsewhere online are bad because the people who had them done didn’t do the same. And a poorly thought out tattoo is much more likely to be a bad tattoo.

    The two most common problems with the QR tattoos I’ve seen are size (too small) and complexity. The smallest code you can create is 21 by 21 dots and is the only size that does not have the fourth (slightly smaller) registration mark in the bottom right corner. Many of the tattoos I have seen (three in the story above) use larger codes that are 25 by 25 dots or larger. This one step increases the number of dots in the image by almost 200. More squares to fill in means more chances for error. Many (if not most) of the QR code tattoos I have seen are too small — 1.5 to 2 inches square, at most. The smaller the overall size, the harder it is to tattoo an accurate straight line, and the more of an issue that distortion of the skin becomes. There is also the issue of ink spread. A QR code does not have to have a perfectly sharp black/white boundary around the dots, but if there is enough spread to completely obscure some of the non-coloured areas, scanning will become more difficult. In discussion with my artist, as well as email with artists who have done QR codes before, the *minimum* size of each dot should be about 1/8 inch, which means that the smallest QR code tattoo should be no smaller than 2.75 inches for a 21×21 code.

    There are some other things to keep in mind that will affect the success of a QR code tattoo. The codes themselves have error correction built into them, which will improve the likelihood of a distorted code scanning, at the cost of the length of the message. Depending on the settings selected (and not all code generators give you the option of specifying the error correction level) between 7% and 30% of the dots in the code can be incorrect. Many QR tattoos have a low error correction level. And as mentioned in the article above, skin is rarely nice and flat, as expected by a code reader. If a code is curled over an arm or leg, large parts of the code may be in error due to distortion. This can be accommodated somewhat by selecting a location that is as flat as possible and making the tattoo as large as possible within that flat space. Lastly, many generated codes will have lots of single black or single white dots that are surrounded on all or most sides by the other colour. These individual dots are going to be the hardest to tattoo cleanly, and most susceptible to ink spread. If it’s possible to reduce the number of these orphans by changing the content of the code, it’s a good idea to do so.

    So the tattoo I am getting is a 21×21 dot QR code, 2.75 inches square, with 4 white and 2 black “orphans”, and located on my forearm. I’m looking forward to it. :)

    And one last comment — QR codes don’t *have* to be URLs, they can also contain plain text. But if you *are* considering getting a URL tattoo, think about whether that link will continue to exist. A lot (if not most) of the QR tattoos that I’ve seen pictured that decode to a web link decode to an address that is obviously not controlled by the person with the tattoo. There is no guarantee that the Youtube link, or URL shortener link won’t change or disappear in a couple of years. My code will link to my domain. I know what it will be doing in 10 years.

  9. I am the Tattooist that did the QR code for “Maci Clare Peltz” And these types of tattoos have to be executed very carefully. making sure that the positive and negative spaces are equal in size. it’s a digital code, so there isnt room for a lot of error, even though these codes do allow up to a 30% error in the code, and still be scannable.

    it’s cool theses are starting to get some more notice.

  10. Thank for all your feed back, gave me a little more peace at mind. Only thing that sucks is the size yes 2.75 square should be the minimal size for error, just sucks because cant put it on my forearm, want it on my inner wrist.

  11. @Adam

    Inner wrist turns out to be a bad place anyway.

    That’s one place I thought would be good as well, and tested it with a 1.75″ or 2″ custom temporary decal. That size (as a decal) scanned quite well in several test locations. It was *very* difficult to get a good scan from the wrist. The problem is that the skin one or near the wrist stretches and flexes as the hand moves. Unless the hand position is exactly right, there is too much distortion to scan.

    Anyone considering a QR code tattoo should really get some decals made up and play with location. Location can make a *huge* difference in how reliable the final ink is.

  12. Thanks I actual did get an 2.5 laminated or transparent copyright to help with idea placement. Most likely end up farther up my wrist near forearm for the size. Can’t do totally area of forearm as another tat already located. But might have second doubts, the combo of the 2 not really working.

  13. Another question for anyone. What about colour, yes black will fade but what about a medium grey? Does the black assist or help with the detail of the corners..thanks

  14. Just to add an interesting addition about the “animated tattoo” in the video above… It no longer works.

    The code in that tattoo is a proprietary code by “ScanLife”. When you scan it now (and only with their app, BTW) it now returns “This code is disabled.”. Did someone forget to pay the bill? :)

    Perfect example of why (if you’re getting a QR coded URL) you need to use a domain that you have exclusive control over.

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