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updated 3/2/2012 5:20:32 PM ET 2012-03-02T22:20:32

Got a smartphone? You can win up to $40,000 if you're first to find all of the U.S. military's special QR codes hidden across the continental United States. But the huge geographical scope of the contest means that people will probably need to turn to their social media networks to find all the codes.

There's a reason why the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to watch code hunters collaborate on Facebook and Twitter. It planned out the " DARPA CLIQR Quest " as a real-life game to simulate how the public can help find essential resources during national emergencies — a very real concern for the military when responding to humanitarian crises or disasters such as the Haiti earthquake of 2010.

"CLIQR Quest participants will be challenged to locate other participants who have key assets that are represented by the QR codes," according to the contest website. "The event will only last for two weeks — the notional assets must be identified and coordinated quickly to ensure they make it to those in need."

Each of the QR codes — square barcodes made readable by smartphone apps — represent resources that survivors might need, including water, food, gas, generators, batteries, radios, vehicles, lights and medicine. They are displayed at "easily visible and readily accessible public locations" with a small DARPA logo and the words "Start your Quest for $40,000."

The contest began without fanfare on Feb. 23 and lasts until noon (EST) on March 8. The first person or team to submit all the available QR codes through the contest website will win the full $40,000 prize. If nobody finds all the codes, the person or team with the most finds will earn a certain chunk of the prize money.

DARPA previously offered a $40,000 prize to social media users who found 10 red balloons scattered across the country. An MIT team ended up winning the prize by finding all the balloons in less than nine hours with the help of nearly 4,400 volunteers recruited across the country about 36 hours before the competition began.

Unlike the past contest, the QR code contest was unannounced before its Feb. 23 start date because DARPA wanted to simulate the unexpected arrival of disasters.

A quick online search using the contest's Twitter hashtag — #cliqrquest — shows a number of people already sharing QR codes and setting up websites to collect codes.

If the excitement of a national treasure hunt or the possibility of winning $40,000 isn't enough, people might consider the gamelike contest as good practice for surviving a post-apocalyptic scenario — perhaps even the zombie apocalypse.

You can follow InnovationNewsDaily Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @ScienceHsu. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.

© 2012 InnovationNewsDaily.com. All rights reserved. More from InnovationNewsDaily.com.

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