In an admirable attempt to share the history of one of San Antonio’s most cherished trees, the Famous Trees of Texas program has installed QR code signage in front of the Ben Milam Bald Cypress, the majestic Bald Cypress tree perched on the east bank of the San Antonio River at the Commerce St. bridge near St. Mary’s. The tree is famous for hosting a sniper who shot Ben Milam, a Texas revolutionary, dead. The plaque is the first to provide a QR code that directs people to a website with an audio history of the tree.
“Thousands of people pass by that tree without ever knowing how it weaves throughout the historical tapestry of Texas,” said Gretchen Riley, Urban Forest Analyst for the Texas A & M Forest Service.
The QR code presumably addresses this. Riley said plans are underway to place similar signs at other famous trees so that passersby can hear the trees’ stories.
“But the Ben Milam is the first,” she said, adding that the announcement generated inquiries from tree advocates far and wide asking how to implement something similar. “I know of no other states who have implemented anything like this yet,” she said.
But will anyone use the quirky technology?
The challenges for QR codes are multiple: 1) You have to own a Smartphone, 2) You must have internet access, 3) You have to download an app, and 4) You have to understand how to use the phone to scan the code. In the end, most people don’t bother. According to Forester Research, only 5% of consumers scanned a QR code between May and July of last year.
QR, or quick response, codes were developed in 1994 as an inventory control tool and are widely derided as a trendy technology embraced by marketers who hope to drive younger audiences to their websites for more info on a product, service, point of view – or in this case, a historic tree. They can hold 100 times more information than their predecessors, the bar code.
“Honestly, I don’t know anyone within the tech world that uses QR codes. In the time [it takes] to find the app, I could just type an easy/short URL into my browser,” said Garrett Heath, a member of Geekdom and cofounder of Tour Leaf, an app development company that devises tour guide apps. “It’s pretty cumbersome.”
The San Antonio River Authority added QR codes to its informational signs last year along the Museum and Mission Reach, but most people don’t bother to access them. Only 57 people had used the myriad QR codes posted along the Mission and Museum Reach so far this month. Riley said no data was available for usage of the Ben Milam QR code.
Which is unfortunate. Scanning the code on the plaque directs people to an audio file that gives a one-minute history of the tree, read in a captivating voice by retired long-time State Forester Bruce Miles.
Heath said that many of the museums with whom his company has worked were initially wowed by the perceived “cool factor” of QR codes, despite evidence that no one uses them.
“We built the functionality in [to the apps] to easily create them…. However, as a best practice, we also encourage the museums to put a URL adjacent to the QR code so that users who don’t know what the esoteric symbol means can still gain access to the website.”
Good idea. We respectfully suggest adding a website address to the plaque in front of the Ben Milam Cypress and any future QR coded trees. For those who don’t want to download a scanning app and snap the code’s pic with their Smartphone, just type this in to your mobile browser to hear the audio: http://tinyurl.com/bmilam.
Technologies come and go. We have a strong feeling the Ben Milam Bald Cypress will long outlive the QR code’s appeal.
More on the Ben Milam Bald Cypress:
More on San Antonio’s trees:
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Monika Maeckle writes about gardening, butterflies, conservation and the Monarch butterfly migration at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @monikam.