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2017 In Defense of the QR Code

Nick Gressle
Jan 2, 2017 · 5 min read

by Nick Gressle

I recently commented on a LinkedIn post that pointed out that using QR codes in a design would be a bad choice.

The original post came from individuals in my creative professional space and it lamented how designs utilize QR codes as brand communication devices. You know the ones, the little box when scanned with your smartphone take you to the brand’s website.

I fully agree that this use has been over played almost from it’s inception. It was an easily executed vehicle to promote the use of the smartphone camera, and it’s ability to scan bar codes and QR codes. The flaw in using QR Codes in this way is that it doomed the code to a place in the internet dustbin as a tiresome widget from web pages gone by.

But I am writing to say that many early adopters did not fully understand what the code truly represents. It was never designed to be a “hot link” to web sites but rather a very ingenious tracking code for manufacturing, and the storage of vast amounts of information.

A very brief history of the QR Code

The QR code or Quick Response Code came into being as a response to the evolution of the barcode introduced in the 1960’s [1] as a way to easily track consumer goods in grocery stores. This innovation was a revolutionary shift in how stores tracked their goods sold and in consequence how they coordinated inventory.

However as the use of barcodes spread globally their limitations became apparent. One of the most outstanding limitations was that the typical barcode could only hold 20 alphanumeric characters of information. The second limitation is that if the barcode was damaged from a rip in the printed substrate or a smudge from dirt etc. The code would not scan and thus make it useless.

Enter Denso Wave

Users of the barcode system in Japan were looking for a code that could not only hold more characters but also Kanji and Kana characters as well as alphanumeric characters.

They approached the Denso Wave corporation who were developing barcode readers at the time and asked them if they could develop a new code that would satisfy their needs.[2] Denso Wave gladly accepted the challenge and assigned a development team led by Masahiro Hara. At the time he only chose one additional member for his team and they began working on a new type of code that could be scanned in 2 directions rather than the linear only direction of the barcode.

2D Codes

Barcodes by their design can only be scanned in one direction whereas a 2D code can be scanned in 2 directions. Across and UP and Down.

Hara and his team were in search of a code that would not only hold larger amounts of information but scan very quickly. Other developers at the time were focused mainly on the storage capacity of the code. The brilliance of Hara and his team’s invention was that they struck upon the notion of adding positional information indicating the code to be read.

The work and effort that came next was enormous. Hara and team had to analyze mountains of printed material to come up with a system that could be read and also not be negated by other printed images on a surface. After much exploration and review they came up with a ratio based on the black and white printed area of a surface and that ratio is 1:1:3:1 [3] “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.

This also enabled the ability to build in error correction to the code so that if the code became damaged it could still be read. [4]

After just a year and a half of development time and trial and error the QR code was released and it could hold 7,000 numerals and Kanji Characters. And be read 10 times faster than other 2D codes at the time.

Why QR Codes are still very relevant in 2017 and beyond

Back to my initial post response about the limited use of QR codes as a website link.

It was probably a good thing in hind sight that the QR code did get used in this manner because it helped to spread it into the mainstream consciousness of marketing and brand recognition. But in the end this was just a scratch on the surface of what the code was capable of doing.

The “typical” QR Code has…

And packs the QR code with a world of potential for use in anti-counterfeiting applications, small footprint text, and documentation encoding, product tracking, directional information encoding, and more.

Today the QR code has expanded it’s capabilities from it’s early days of the 1960’s to also include Secure QR (SQRC) codes that have a challenge and response feature built into the code to add a new level of security. [5]

In Anti counterfeiting applications a QR Code can also be printed using UV ink so that it is invisible to the naked eye but using a UV reader the information indicating a genuine product can be obtained by the consumer or distribution center.

And in addition to all of the original capabilities of the QR code to hold alphanumeric data the Voice QR code has evolved to take typed text and translate it into spoken word synthetic speech. This is being used more and more in educational applications but could have a big impact on the workplace if strategically executed. Not to mention integration into VUI (Voice User Interface) devices such as Alexa, Google Talk, and Siri. [6]

So this little square of black and white boxes that has shown up on billboards, packaging, magazine articles and even tattoos is still a very relevant communication vehicle for the 21st century. All that needs to happen next is for developers and creative innovation specialists to dig a little deeper into what the QR code can do for their audiences.

Other References:

I created my own QR code creator using PHP and Hype 3.0 at http://gressle.com/QRCode.html

Thanks to the Denso Wave Corporation for making the QR Code accessible to all [7]You can make your own QR Code applications with PHP libraries http://phpqrcode.sourceforge.net

There are even tutorials on line for making the QR Code Readers. AppCoda has one for Swift and iOS http://www.appcoda.com/qr-code-reader-swift/

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Sources:

[1] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/history-bar-code-180956704/ [2], [3] http://www.qrcode.com/en/history/

[4] http://www.qrcode.com/en/about/error_correction.html

[5] http://www.qrcode.com/en/codes/sqrc.html

[6] http://www.gafe.co/talking-qr-codes-with-qr-voice/

[7] http://www.qrcode.com/en/patent.html

Nick Gressle

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I am classified as a Unicorn. Illustrator, Designer, Developer and Art Director. I write on topics that fall into the creative and technology space. gressle.com