The Incredible evolution of the QR code
If I were to describe the QR code in the most poignant way, I’d say it was like barcodes on steroids.
Now, hear me out. There’s weight to the comparison. While at first glance it seems to be exactly the same thing as a traditional barcode, a QR code is far more dynamic and agile. A QR code is capable of storing a ludicrously larger amount of data in a considerably smaller surface area than its predecessor. As opposed to standard barcodes' 1 dimension, QR codes have 2-dimensional data storage.
For further clarity, here’s a common example of a QR code:
The QR code is versatile and flexible because scanning it doesn’t necessitate unique, costly hardware. You can even scan them with a smartphone app with a camera and a decoding algorithm. Other advantages include dust and damage resistance, readability from any angle or direction, and structured appending (i.e. the data can be split across multiple codes which reconstruct the original content when scanned). Try scanning the QR code I used as an example, it just takes you to Logmore Web, which is also very much worth exploring.
Now, read on for a history lesson and deep dive into the expansive world of QR codes:
The early stages of development
Japan’s economy reached new heights in the 1960s. The abundance of wealth led to supermarkets sprouting up in almost every neighbourhood. Cashiers were still stuck with manual price input. The influx of customers brought on by a robust economy caused an epidemic of carpal tunnel syndrome in cashiers, who became desperate to find some relief.
Cashiers’ pleas for a lightened load were remedied with traditional barcodes and the POS system, where a cash register displays the price of an item after the barcode was scanned by an optical sensor. Simultaneously, the information on the item was transferred to a computer.
Unfortunately, the barcode could only hold approximate 20 alphanumeric characters of data and its limitations became more evident as consumer demand increased.
DENSO WAVE Inc., a company that developed barcode readers, was asked to develop technology that could code Kanji and Kana characters on top of alphanumeric ones. From there, DENSO WAVE began developing 2-dimensional codes to meet the needs of the market.
Living in a world with 2 dimensions
What makes 2-dimensional codes unique is that information is coded horizontally and vertically, whereas 1D only codes in one direction. Developers at other companies wanted to blindly cram as much information into codes as that they possibly could.
Unlike other developers, DENSO’s Masahiro Hara aimed to create 2-dimensional code that could be easily read and could hold tons of information. Hara’s toughest obstacle was the speed at which codes could be read. The position-detecting pattern, consisting of square marks, was developed when Hara realized the speed problem could be rectified with positional information signaling the existence of a code being read. This revelation made high-speed reading possible.
The markings had to be squares because such a pattern was unlikely to appear on business forms and other similar documents. Code readers can mistake similar marks for position-detection patterns, so Hara’s codes needed to be unique. After extensive research on the various ratios of white-to-black areas in pictures and symbols on various kinds of print, Hara and his team discovered the least common black and white areas on printed matter; 1:1:3:1:1. Hara’s team realized that the orientation of the code could be ascertained regardless of the scanning angle after looking for the ratio.
It only took a year and a half for Hara to develop a QR code that could be read 10x faster than other codes.
The roaring 90s
In 1994, DENSO released the QR code. Hara truly pounded the pavement and made sure the word got out to various industries and organizations. Eventually, the QR Code was picked up by the auto industry due to Toyota’s dissatisfaction with previous barcodes in their factories. The benefits of 2-dimensional scanning technology came tenfold. Production, shipping, issuing transaction slips, and many other operational processes became more streamlined thanks to QR codes.
As a means to make products more traceable; pharmaceutical, food, and contact lens companies joined the automobile industry by adopting the QR code. 2D scanning made it exponentially easier to control merchandise. The food industry specifically needed to monitor food safety. Consumers wanted complete transparency when it came to the production and logistics of what they were eating.
Furthermore, DENSO made the specifications of the QR code publicly available so that anyone could use it freely, not choosing to exercise its patent rights. Plus, given DENSO’s leniency, QR code was available as ‘public code’ all over the world.
In 2002, mobile phones in Japan were equipped with a QR code-reading prompting widespread public usage, so people could access websites and obtain a coupon by scanning a pattern.
Today QR codes are universally accepted everywhere in the world for an array of uses, from issuing name cards to the airport’s flight ticket issuing systems.
Did you enjoy the article? Stay tuned for the next part, where we discuss the further milestones and today of the QR code.
In the meanwhile, here's some recommended reading: The Importance of Cold Chain Logistics for the Healthcare Industry, 10 Tips to Make Your Supply Chain More Eco-friendly and How Will Self-Driving Trucks Re-Route Logistics Professionals?