Date posted: 01/06/2021 5 min read

Five things you didn’t know about QR codes

Those funny blob-filled squares have become a part of the landscape, but what do you know about them?

In Brief

  • QR codes were first developed to track car parts on the assembly line.
  • Using a phone’s camera function to natively scan QR codes only became possible in 2017.
  • New Zealand has been regularly using QR codes for about five years, which is way ahead of Australia.

By Josh Gliddon

1. QR codes are like 2D barcodes

QR codes, those funny square-shaped black-and-white boxes, have become a way of life in the COVID era. Scanned by smartphones’ camera apps, they are used to check into cafes, gyms, restaurants, pubs, supermarkets and workplaces.

The typical barcode seen on groceries can hold a couple of dozen characters in one direction. However QR, or Quick Response, codes have characters in both the transverse and longitudinal directions (two dimensions).

A QR code can contain 3 kilobits of data – that’s about 7000 characters, or enough for a game of Snake, for those of you old enough to remember early Nokia mobile phones. The squares on three corners of the code are a position detection pattern that ensures the code scans without error.

“A QR code can contain 3 kilobits of data – that’s about 7000 characters, or enough for a game of Snake.”

2. QR codes were made for car parts

We can thank the car industry for QR codes. In 1992, Denso Wave, a subsidiary of Japan’s Toyota Motor Company, was looking for a way to track car parts on the assembly line. Engineer Masahiko Hara and his team developed the QR code so workers could use them to choose the right parts at the right time.

The QR codes started being used in 1994 and became a key component of Toyota’s “just in time” manufacturing process, which sees parts delivered just as they’re needed.

3. Native QR scanning in phones is quite recent

In 2010, smartphones finally became powerful enough to scan the codes, and a mini-industry of software developers emerged creating third-party scanning apps to download to your phone. It wasn’t until 2017 that Apple’s iOS 11 and Google’s Android 8 operating systems had QR scanning built in to the main camera function. Now it’s possible to simply point and click, rather than go through the clunky process of having to use a separate app.

4. QR codes aren’t just for checking in

2020 was the breakthrough year for QR codes in Australia, but New Zealand has been ahead of the game for about five years. One Kiwi company, IDlocate, has been using QR scanning to combat food fraud since 2015. With its product, QR codes can be scanned to check the provenance of fresh produce – that they are what they say they are, and where they are from.

In Asia, Chinese payment app Alipay began using the little black boxes as a payment shortcut in 2011, and soon they began appearing everywhere. It didn’t take long for competitors to do the same and QR codes are now ubiquitous in China.

5. QR codes for the dead

Look closely at the funeral monument for someone who’s recently deceased and you might spy a QR code. Funeral directors are encouraging families to upload video and audio memories of their loved ones to websites. A visitor to the grave can scan the code and visit the website, seeing all the tributes that have been put up to the person who passed away. Some of these funerary codes even allow visitors to upload their own memories, creating something that will transcend time and space and keep memories alive.

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