Travel books go mobile

Many travelers still rely on comprehensive printed guidebooks for tourism information. But travelers are also increasingly using mobile technology to plan a trip or find their way around.

Now a technology called QR codes, for Quick Response, offers a way to forge a functional relationship between your guidebook and your smart phone. The codes are already big in Japan, but relatively unknown in the United States.

QR codes are essentially barcodes that can be scanned by smart phone cameras and other devices. You aim your camera at a QR code on a page in a travel book, for example, and it links to information online, such as a map or directions based on the user's location. The user also can store information in the phone about the place that's described on the page.

QR codes also can appear in media other than books. You can scan them off a computer screen. They've been put on T-shirts and even billboards.

A new travel book is using QR codes to help readers link to spots around the globe. "Earthbound: A Rough Guide to the World in Pictures" ($30) is a coffee-table book with more than 250 gorgeous photos from all over the world. Each comes with personal insights from the photographer who captured the image, some of which have never before been published.

What's new in "Earthbound" is the strange black-and-white box next to each image. This is the QR code, looking something like a pixelated alien from the 1970s video game "Space Invaders." The code offers a link to the location of what's pictured in the photo, using Google Maps online.

Sounds neat? It is, except for the fact that this emerging technology still has a few bugs.

It took me and an uber-techie colleague about a half-hour of mucking about with our iPhones to get the reader apps working properly. The introduction to the book suggests using the free apps 2D sense and NeoReader to scan the QR codes.

Neither of us could get the 2D sense to work reliably, unless we photocopied and blew up the image of the QR code. NeoReader was a bit better, but still a bit wonky.

A Rough Guides spokeswoman acknowledges some problems, especially with earlier generation iPhones, but says the new ones and BlackBerrys perform better.