You probably know and have already used this popular square-shaped black and white code. QR codes help to open informative websites, download applications, and provide contactless access to e.g. restaurant menus. Thanks to QR codes we also scan public transport tickets in their electronic version using our phones. QR codes can be found more and more often on advertising billboards, on websites, or on social media, where their purpose is to provide us with more information about a given offer or product.
Even though the QR code was an invention of the 90s, it did not gain any real momentum until the era of smartphones. Mobile devices have made it possible to use this digital sign in a more common, dynamic, and varied way. In the pandemic era, QR codes are still gaining in popularity thanks to their non-contact function to connect and share information, and more and more companies are choosing to use them to communicate with their customers.
Where did the idea come from and how was the QR code created?
In the 1960s when Japan entered its high economic growth period, supermarkets selling a wide range of commodities from foodstuff to clothing began to spring up in many neighborhoods. Cash registers that were then used at checkout counters in these stores required the price to be keyed in manually. Because of this, many cashiers suffered from numbness in the wrist and carpal tunnel syndrome. Cashiers desperately longed for some way to lighten their burden.
The invention of barcodes provided a solution to this problem. Subsequently, the POS system was developed, in which the price of an item of merchandise was displayed on the cash register automatically when the barcode on the item was scanned by an optical sensor, and information on the item was sent to a computer at the same time. As the use of barcodes spread, however, their limitations became apparent as well. The most prominent was the fact that a barcode can only hold 20 alphanumeric characters or so of information.
Users contacted Denso Wave Incorporated (then a division of Denso Corporation) who were developing barcode readers at that time to ask them whether it was possible to develop barcodes that could hold more information, saying, “We’d like the capability to code Kanji and Kana characters as well as alphanumeric ones.” Encouraged by these enthusiastic requests, a development team at Denso Wave embarked on the development of a new two-dimensional code, all out of their sincere desire to accommodate users’ needs.
Why did the QR code look like that?
Looking back on those days, Masahiro Hara in charge of the development of the QR Code then remembers that people who were developing 2D codes at other companies were all obsessed with packing as much information as possible into their codes. With barcodes, information is coded in one direction (one dimension) only. With 2D codes, on the other hand, information is coded in two directions: across and up/down. Out of a strong desire to develop a code that could be read easily as well as being capable of holding a great deal of information, Hara set out to develop a new 2D code. He dared to try this with only one other person as his team member.
The greatest challenge for the team was how to make reading their code as fast as possible. One day, he hit on the idea that their problem might be solved by adding positional information indicating the existence of a code to be read.
This was how the position detecting pattern made up of square marks came into being. By incorporating these marks into their code, high-speed reading became possible.
So far so good, but why did the marks have to be squares rather than any other shape? According to Hara, this was because “it was the pattern least likely to appear on various business forms and the like.” If a position detection pattern is used in a code and there is a similar-looking mark nearby, the code reader may mistake it for the position detection patterns. To avoid this type of erroneous reading, their position detection patterns had to be truly unique. After mulling over this problem thoroughly, they decided to do an exhaustive survey of the ratio of white to black areas in pictures and symbols printed on fliers, magazines, cardboard boxes, and so on after reducing them to patterns with black and white areas. They continued the task of surveying innumerable examples of printed matter all day long for days on end. Eventually, they came up with the least used ratio of black and white areas on printed matter. This ratio was 1:1:3:1:1. This was how the widths of the black and white areas in the position detection patterns were decided upon. In this way, a contrivance was created through which the orientation of their code could be determined regardless of the angle of scanning, which could be any angle out of 360°, by searching for this unique ratio.
A year and a half after the development project was initiated and after innumerable and repeated trial and error, a QR Code capable of coding about 7,000 numerals with the additional capability to code Kanji characters was finally created. This code could not only hold a great deal of information but it could also be read more than 10 times faster than other codes.
How did the QR code become so widely adopted?
In 1994, Denso Wave (then a division of Denso Corporation) announced the release of its QR Code. The QR in the name stands for quick response, expressing the development concept for the code, whose focus was placed on high-speed reading. When it was announced, however, even Hara, one of the original developers of the code, could not be sure whether it would be accepted as a two-dimensional code to replace barcodes. He had confidence in the performance of the code, however, and was eager to make the rounds of companies and industry organizations concerned to introduce it in the hope that it would become known and used by as many people as possible.
As a result of his efforts, the QR Code was adopted by the auto industry for use in their electronic Kanban (a communication tool used in production management systems), and it contributed greatly to making their management work efficient for a wide range of tasks from production to shipping to the issuing of transaction slips. Also, in response to a newly-emerging societal trend where people demanded that the industries’ production processes be made transparent partly to make products traceable, food, pharmaceutical, and contact lens companies began to use the code to control their merchandise. Particularly, after incidents such as the BSE problem (disease commonly known as mad cow disease) that threatened food safety, the industry had to respond to consumers’ demands that the whole processes of production and logistics for the foods that ended up on their dining tables be made completely transparent. The QR Code became an indispensable medium that could store a great deal of information on these processes.
There was still another factor that contributed greatly to spreading the use of the code, and that was Denso Wave’s decision to make the specifications of the QR Code publicly available so that anyone could use it freely.
Who owns the QR code?
Although Denso Wave would retain the patent rights to the QR Code, it declared that it would not exercise them. This policy was in place from the very beginning of the code development, honoring the developers’ intent that the QR Code could be used by as many people as possible. Thus the QR Code, which could be used at no cost and without worrying about potential problems, grew into a “public code” used by people all over the world.
It was in 2002 that the use of the code became widespread among the general public in Japan. What facilitated this trend was the marketing of mobile phones with a QR Code-reading feature. These phones make it possible for people to access a website or obtain a coupon by just scanning a strange, eye-catching pattern. The sheer convenience helped to rapidly heighten the popularity of the code among the general public. And now, it is an indispensable tool for businesses and in people’s daily lives, used in all sorts of ways including for issuing name cards and electronic tickets and in flight ticket issuing systems implemented at airports.
QR codes in the SmartHotel system
In a hotel or apartment that uses the SmartHotel system, Guests can use their phones to obtain information about the facility and their stay at any time. It is enough for the Guest to click on the link sent by e-mail in the booking confirmation or via SMS / WhatsApp message sent by the property. Guests can find the information they are looking for even faster – they can scan the QR code, which they will find at the reception, in their room, and elsewhere in the hotel or apartment. Thanks to this solution in the SmartHotel system, Guests can freely communicate with the facility anytime and anywhere.
Feel free to contact us, let the communication be #Smart from now on!