You've probably seen them around; those strange little boxes with what looks like TV static inside of them. What exactly are they? And why are they all over the place?

These "strange little boxes" are known as "Quick Response codes" or "QR codes." They've been around for nearly a decade in Japan, and are making some headway here in the states. You can think of them as a kind of a turbo-charged "barcode." Only when you scan these barcodes, you get much more than a price.

Here's how it works: let's say you see a QR code on a sign or a package somewhere. First, take out your smart phone and scan the QR code with your camera. (You will need to have a QR code scanner app on your phone for these to work, but luckily there's a lot of these apps and most of them are free.) From there, you'll gain access to a whole new set of information: anything ranging from directions, to special offers, to the company's website itself. For example, scanning this QR code on will give you instant access to Wikipedia Mobile.

That's one of the things I really like about these QR codes: they're instantaneous. The information is delivered to you directly; no phone number to dial, no web address to type in, no middle man. The only thing that determines how fast you get the info is the speed of your phone. It also allows for a whole new level of consumer interactivity for businesses. If you don't have enough space on a flyer to include all the information you want, just slap a QR code on the bottom and your customers can get all the information they need.

Of course, as it usually is with most new technology, it's not perfect. During my research, I encountered more than a few QR codes that gave me just a blank page on my phone's browser. And sometimes, the information you get isn't really all that useful. Sometimes you might get nothing more than an ad for the business. But from what I found, these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

It's no surprise how these little codes have become so popular and prevalent here. So next time you see one around town, go ahead and give it a scan. You never know what you might find out.