What are QR Codes?

Barcodes, in many different formats, have been around for decades. You've relied upon UPC barcodes everytime you've gone food shopping and your items have been scanned during checkout. More recently, you've likely seen QR codes appearing as a quick way to help you reach a particular web site, pull up a menu at a restaurant or find a new mobile app in the App Store. The use of QR codes has increased sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Created for the automotive industry

QR codes are a type of matrix barcode and were invented in 1994 by the Japanese automotive company Denso Wave, then a subsidiary of Toyota. The lead engineer on the project that created the QR code was Masahiro Hara. Prior to QR codes more traditional looking barcodes were used. Applications that required lots of information to be assigned to a single item, for example, often called for having multiple barcodes associate with them. Denso Wave set out to solve the problem of their factory workers having to scan multiple barcodes for individual parts. They were trying to create a format that could store information more densly and could be scanned quickly.

Pattern Recognition

The challenge they faced was developing patterns that were unique and could be quickly processed by vision systems. Those patterms had to work regardless of the orientation or position of the scanning equipment. So, markers were added to the design so that the software scanning the codes could properly orient their data. That's what the squares are that appear in the three corners of most QR codes. To help differentiate the patterns with other data, possibly nearby or within the same field of view, specific ratios of symbology had to be employed. Designers at Denso Wave evaluated the ratio of white to black areas in printed characters and in pictures and discovered that the ratio 1:1:3:1:1 was sufficiently unique. It became a key part of their design.

Built-in Error Correction

QR codes have built-in error correction features that allow them to be properly scanned and interpreted even when partially obscured or damaged. These features have allowed QR codes to contain more artistic elements, such as embedded logos and variation in color.

Today's Uses

With the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic we saw a dramatic increase in QR codes being used in restaurants to present menus directly to customer's phones. In fact, a September 2020 survey conducted by Statista Research found that 18.8 percent of consumers in the United States and the United Kingdom strongly agreed that they had noticed an increase of QR code use since the beginning of COVID-19 related shelter-in-place orders in March 2020.

While years ago scanning barcodes, of any kind, might have required specialized apps to be installed, modern Apple iOS and Android phones have had built-in scanning for some time. Consumers have become comfortable opening up their cameras on their phones whenever they're presented with a QR code. This has led to an increase in the use of QR codes in advertising, real estate, packaging and anywhere links to web pages are needed.

Patents and Trademarks

According to the Wikipedia page, the use of QR code technology is freely licensed as long as users follow the standards for QR Code documented with JIS or ISO. Non-standardized codes may require special licensing. Denso Wave owns a number of patents on QR code technology, but has chosen to exercise them in a limited fashion. Interestingly, the text QR Code itself is an active, registered trademark and wordmark of Denso Wave Incorporated.

Spryly makes it easy to associate QR codes with a variety of things that include:

  • Business and personal contact information
  • YouTube and Vimeo videos
  • Social networks like Facebook, Instagram and dozens more
  • Contests and voting
  • Luggage and property tags
  • Restaurant menus

To see how Spryly can be used to create printable PDFs view our post Create Scannable Luggage Tags.