photo of a visitor about to scan QR codes with her phone
A visitor prepares her smartphone to scan quick response (QR) codes along the iNature Trail at J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. (Chelle Koster Walton)

Mother Nature’s gone digital.

J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida made virtual history in late June when it unveiled iNature Trail, an interactive, quick response code system along Wildlife Drive.

The Sanibel Island sanctuary is the first of the 553 national wildlife refuges to use QR codes. It is believed to be the first QR wildlife trail in the nation.

QR codes are small barcodes that can be scanned by smartphones to pull up Web sites, videos and other information. QR codes also are known as hardlinks, or physical-world hyperlinks.

As the refuge’s approximately 800,000 annual visitors travel a quiet, four-mile stretch along Wildlife Drive, they now can watch videos about everything from the characteristics of the roseate spoonbill to the types of mangroves that dot the 6,400-acre refuge—all with just a few clicks of their smartphones.

iNature Trail features 10 signs, each with two QR codes—one that pulls up videos and educational Web sites for adults, and another that is tailored to children.

"We used to say, ’Turn your phones off and enjoy the outdoors,’ but that message doesn’t resonate anymore," "Ding" Darling Refuge manager Paul Tritaik said, noting the QR system is an effort to bring younger generations outdoors. "If they’re going to be on their smartphones anyway, we might as well have them use them in a way that’s beneficial."

Developed in Japan in 1994, QR codes are becoming more popular in the United States. Several southwest Florida real estate firms and other companies use them to list property and other information. A March 2011 survey by Baltimore marketing firm MGH found about 65 percent of smartphone users have seen a QR code, and 50 percent have scanned one.

Lars Bredahl, 24, who recently received his master’s degree in interactive media from Elon University, developed the interactive trail. Bredahl grew up on Sanibel Island and is nephew of "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society’s executive director, Birgie Vertesch. He approached the refuge about creating a QR system for his graduate school project.

"We used to say, ’Turn your phones off and enjoy the outdoors,’ but that message doesn’t resonate anymore."

"I was walking around one of the trails at Ding Darling, and I saw they already had signs labeling some of the plants. I thought, ’What if we could throw QR codes on that?’ " he said.

The society spent about $1,100 in private donations to create the system. It should save resources and money because the refuge won’t have to print as many brochures, Vertesch said.

Bredahl worked with Sanibel Island videographer Ann Peay Potter to shoot one- to three-minute videos with refuge staff. He spent about a month developing the QR codes, and said they enable visitors to customize their nature tours to learn more about the refuge.

"It’s a way to offer a very multimedia-rich experience without having to build any high-tech stations that take away from the natural setting," said Bredahl, an intern with SCVNGR, a mobile applications company in Cambridge, MA. "This is like having a guide at your disposal—a pocket tour guide."

Lindsay Downey is a freelance writer in Florida. This article originally appeared in the Fort Myers News-Press on June 25, 2011.