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QueRy is a net artwork that uses QR codes (2D barcode patterns) to embed textual messages in an "unreadable" digital form. In the traditions of both viral marketing and graffiti / sticker art, readers discover the striking QR code fragments on websites or on street corners, and decode the images using the decoding website, through software-enabled cameraphones, or by uploading photos of the image to a decoding website. While all QR codes work in this way, QueRy codes embed paragraphs of prose in a format that doubles as an ASCII image. Individual images can be assembled to form a larger work (a complete short story) and a larger image (a map).

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Our first work with QueRy is "QueRy: The Gold-Bug" is a participatory net artwork that plays with the idea of unreadable digital text and encoding, and riffs on the emerging phenomenon of ARGs. We take the public domain work "The Gold-Bug" by Edgar Allan Poe (a treasure hunt story featuring the step-by-step breaking of a cryptographic message) and embed it in QR codes of a series of simple maps. Any reader who encounters a map bring it to the site (or other places) to decode it, and may upload it to the site within a photo of it as it was found in order to get a "bug." The reader-contributed photos form the background of the total map as it develops, and each reader is recorded as a collaborator in the finished artwork map - a "Gold-Bug," after which the map is archived and the process restarts for new readers.

The Source Text

"The Gold-Bug" is extracted from a volume of Poe's work available from Gutenberg (etext 2147). In order to carry ASCII images, Poe's text has to have hard linewraps removed and whitespace removed. The image resolution gets even clearer when the text is converted to all caps. This telegram-like stream of letters and punctuation is then hard linewrapped to 64 wide, 128 wide, or 256 wide, depending on the size of the image and the puzzle pieces to be generated.

The Emblem

The plot of "The Gold-Bug" is a cryptography / hidden treaasure mystery that hinges on a piece of parchment that an explorer snatches up from a beach in order to make a drawing of a rare bug. While the bug's markings resemble a skull, even more remarkable is that an actual skull is already drawn on the obverse side of the parchment - the mark of a pirate.

The emblem for this project is a dual bug / skull, the bug resembling the skull when turned upside down. Here is a working example:

This image is then encoded into Poe's story as a pattern of missing letters. We plan to perform this automatically using the open source server-side software Image Magick, however here is an example generated using Text-image.com Converter, a hosted open source Pike script. [Due to a length limitations on the service, only a repeating sample of Poe's text is used here]:

Here are several examples of the Poe sample at different sizes. While the actual output is plan text with letters replaced by spaces, here the text is colorized in HTML so that you can reveal the missing letters by highlighting with the mouse.

128 White Ground

256 White Ground, 256 Black Ground
256 White Figure, 256 Black Figure

512 White Ground


Stage 1: Signing up

In order to participate, the reader is asked to upload a photo - either of themself or some avatar / object / icon to represent then:

Their photo is matched with a piece of Poe's text. Like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle, this section of text has been removed from the larger work:

A corrected brightness pattern from the photo is used to create an ASCII rendition of the photo/text (using Image Magick). The "figure" text issued to the reader is a key, completing the "ground" text that has been left out.

The plain text that forms the figure key is then encoded into a QR Code. A QR code is a 2D barcode which stores plain text, and may be automatically decoded by some cameraphones.

Stage 2: Leaving a clue

The QR code image is issued to the reader, with instructions to print it out and place it somewhere it can be viewed by the public (a car bumper, a window, a t-shirt, a telephone pole etc.) and take a picture of it.

[Photo of public QR code not pictured]

While the QR codes placed in public view are unreadable, anyone bystanding who takes a picture of the code may translate it with publicly available software, and the bystander will get back both the unique identity of the reader and the raw texture of Poe's treasure hunt story.

While the text does not contain the URL for the website, or indeed any predictable search strings (as the text is fragmented differently in every key generated), anyone using Google to try to discern the secret of the message will quickly find Poe's story and this project - in part because the project will be the only high-profile internet presence relating to the full text of Poe's story other than Gutenberg, in part because the use of run-together text will create natural search units (e.g. ",MAYBEFOUND,") with a high matching index, as we will be hosting the same munged text that is being searched. Public clues (and the idea of public clues) lead new readers to the project.

Stage 3: X Marks the spot

The reader returns and uploads their photo of their QR code in some public place, two things happen. First, the server scans the photo and automatically recognizes and processes the QR code. Second, the contents of the QR code are checked to see if it is a reader key, and if the key matches the particular reader.

Once the image is confirmed, the reader describes the location of their photo [mapped, descriptive?] and in exchange, the server combines their old photo and their key into a part of the website artwork. First the text is corrected to match the original image:

Then text and image are combined using one of a variety of filter effects to create a puzzle piece of the total story. Each puzzle piece is both generic (a given part of the total story) and unique (present in the shape of the reader image). The result (again done woth Image Magick) could use any number of standard filter effects, several examples of which are shown here:

Stage 4: Complete texts

Each time a set of readers (e.g. 20) complete the process, a new page is added to the completed work gallery and all the readers are notified. A complete reading is in essence a contact sheet of each reader that completed their piece, assembled as a set. Here is a an illustration of what a complete sheet might look like, processed using example photos and text.

In actuality, pages are assembled from already-processed reader pieces each time the system detects a complete set of readings. However, it is easiest to picture this process as assembled in the same way an individual user pieces was assembled.

First, the contact sheet of user photos:

Next, the ASCII filter sheet of the individual text fragments of Poe's story they were assigned:

The result: a page of the web project, a unique edition of Poe's story, shaped by the images involved:

Of course, there are many possible variant rending strategies:

Stage 5: Beyond?

When a page is complete, all participants get a notification... and QR code containing a new piece, this time a piece of the Gold-Bug.