Bars, cars and Go: the story of the QR Code

Its invention revolutionized the worlds of logistics and manufacturing. Almost 30 years later, its applications for marketing and communication prove to be endless. It’s a small, often thumb-sized grid capable of encoding thousands of characters of information. What is it? The humble – and ubiquitous – QR Code.

It’s the early 1990s, and Japanese industrial designer Masahiro Hara has a problem. His company Denso Wave is a subsidiary of automotive company Denso, part of the Toyota Group, and specializes in the production of barcode readers for logistics, but the limitations of barcodes are becoming more apparent by the day. Yes, they’re ubiquitous, and can be read quickly and reliably by his company’s machines, but they’re limited in information capacity, encoding up to a maximum of 20 alphanumeric characters. What’s more, this is Japan, where they use several different writing scripts, and manufacturers have been clamouring for a way to encode Kanji script, logographic Chinese characters used in Japanese writing.

Inspired by a game

In one of those serendipitous, eureka-moment stories that sounds almost too good to be true, the solution comes to Hara on his lunch break, where he often makes time for a game of Go. Contemplating his next move, his eyes roam over the board, with its square grid covered in patterns of white and black stones. Each row and cluster of pieces represents an attack, or defense, or feint, or strategy, bound up in more than a millennium of tradition and gameplay, communicating, in a sense, the whole history of the game. And suddenly it comes to him: this image, these patterns, could be a new way of encoding information.

Launched in 1994, the QR Code was – and continues to be – a revolution in how we encode and retrieve data. Rather than the 20-character limitation of the barcode, the Quick Response Code can hold over 7000 characters, including Kanji. It carries information both horizontally and vertically, which is why it’s known as a 2D code (as opposed to the one-way reading of barcodes) and can encode data in 1/10th the space of a barcode. It can be read 10 times faster than the codes existing at the time. In other words, it’s a marvel.

From eureka to ubiquity

But not all great ideas leapfrog into ubiquity as fast as the QR Code has done, and there have been a few pivotal moments to help it on its way. The first, was the fact that Hara’s invention was quickly applied at scale by parent company Denso for use in manufacturing logistics. The second, was Hara’s decision to release the QR Code into the wild so everybody can make and use it. To this day Denso Wave retains the intellectual property rights to the basic QR Code (there have been subsequent, specialized variations), but has declared they will never exercise them, making the QR Code something like open-source technology, a public good. Access to QR Codes improved after 2002, when reader apps became first available in Japan. But in the West, the potential for QR Code marketing just kept smouldering.

That is, until 2017, when first Apple and then Android launched native QR Code readers with their new operating systems. Suddenly, with an easy-to-use QR Code reader in literally everyone’s pocket, the vast potential for QR Code marketing finally blazed forth.

QR Code worldwide interest over time

The continued rise in Google searches for “QR Code”, Jan. 2007-May 2021. Source: Google Trends.

Complex power, simple code

Now, the QR Code is here to stay, and its potential is only multiplying by the day. In addition to providing transparency and traceability with car parts, food, pharmaceuticals and more, QR Codes are now the mechanism enabling ticketless airline travel and cardless, contactless pay (In China there are 1.65 trillion WeChat and Alipay QR Code transactions a year!). The Church of England website even hosts support pages on enabling QR Code-powered contactless donations, and you can see them on billboards, in Burger King TV adverts, and even, incredibly, drone displays in the night sky.

And though after so many lockdowns and social distancing we all can’t wait to reach out and touch someone, QR Coded restaurant menus and other contactless applications may be – perhaps ironically – exactly what helps all of us to get back in contact with each other once again.