What is a QR code? Why is the QR code the way it is?
Dear internet person, why does the robot beep? The roadrunner meep?
It is natural.
QR codes are the natural evolution of traditional UPC barcodes. They’re also improvements over barcodes in every aspect. And to understand why they’re so much better, we must summon the past.
QR codes were invented for a reason—by people with unique constraints and goals. And they’re a product of their time, with its distinctive status quos and obstacles. Come, let us rummage through the reams of QR code history and discover how the QR code came to be its lovely self.
Who Invented the QR Code? Creator of QR Code
The QR code was invented in Japan by a development team led by Masahiro Hara for the company Denso Wave. Hara is widely credited as the creator of the QR code.
Mara’s team’s task was to create a barcode that could easily track automobiles and automobile parts during manufacturing. They invented the QR code. They did not expect it to be used outside of the automotive industry.
“At the time, I felt that I had developed something great, and predicted that it would be widely used in the industry in the future. But it was widely used by general users, which I did not expect. It was used as a payment method. It was completely unexpected.”
If QR codes were not originally meant for their current use cases, then what problem were they solving for Denso Wave? Why were QR codes invented?
When Was the QR Code Invented?
Denso Wave and Masahiro Hara invented the QR code in 1994, just as automotive manufacturing technology was picking up steam. The requirements of strangely-shaped auto parts moving around factories at high rates of speed is fundamental to QR code history, as we’ll see.
Why Were QR Codes Invented?
The reason QR codes were invented has everything to do with the type of barcode they replaced: the traditional UPC barcode.
To this day, the Universal Product Code (UPC) barcode is still the most prevalent tracking tool on the planet. And their very beginnings lie in 1952, when Norman Woodland and Bernard Silver’s first patent was issued for barcode technology. At the time, it was known as linear scanning technology. And it looked like a bullseye. Here’s one of the original mock-up images:
For two decades, the technology remained undeveloped and unused.
Meanwhile, post-war American suburbs were booming. The birth of the supermarket to feed the suburban masses led to a unique logistical problem. How can so many individual items in one place be processed quickly?
As American dissatisfaction with waiting in line grew throughout the 50s and 60s, IBM set to work in the early 1970s to revisit the earlier patented technology. And IBM, in coordination with the grocery industry, developed the vertically-aligned UPC barcode we know today.
The idea was to create a universal system of product identification and processing. A system that didn’t rely on manually entering numbers anywhere, but on fast optical scanning. Point-of-sale (POS) systems and scanners were required to scan and process the new UPC barcodes. Those were sold and distributed by IBM.
By the late 1970s, checkout lines had sped up 40%. Throughout the 80s, thousands upon thousands of grocery and retail stores adopted the technology. By the 2000s, the barcode business had a value of around $17 billion. Billions of items are now scanned every day in every industry across the world.
Shortcomings of the UPC Code
Lack of Storage Space
IBM’s first iteration of the barcode stored a 12-digit number. In 1974, code 39 barcodes were created that could store 30 alphanumeric characters. As time went on, barcode technology evolved. New types of barcodes were introduced. Each capable of storing more and more data. All of them, though, are only capable of storing around 100 characters or less.
QR Code vs. Barcode Speed
As technology developed, so did the speed of manufacturing. Parts and bits whirred down conveyor belts and sped through factories with ever-increasing speed. The time it took for a traditional UPC barcode to scan wasn’t cutting it. It was fine for grocery store checkouts in the 1970s, but it became a major bottleneck for 1990s manufacturing.
Why the QR Code Was Invented
UPC barcodes are one-dimensional. They encode information horizontally, through the width and placement of vertical lines. QR codes encode are two-dimensional. They encode information both horizontally and vertically. That means QR code size can store more information than a UPC barcode of equal size. At present, custom QR codes can store up to 7,000 characters. That makes them ideal for scenarios where size is at a premium, like food QR codes.
Fast scanning is the primary reason Hara and Denso Wave set out to create the QR code. The automated automotive industry demanded it. The name of the technology itself betrays that focus: Quick Response code.
The two-dimensionality that allows for more data storage in QR codes also speeds up scanning in two important ways:
- More data can be accessed by optical scanners at any given time. This is because the optical scanner is accessing information encoded in two directions.
- The code itself can be scanned from more versatile angles and distances. This is especially useful for machine parts—many with unique and inconvenient shapes—moving along a fast-paced assembly line. Read about QR code scanning problems, QR code tests, and how QR codes work for more information about the technical scanning process.
Both increase scanning speed and efficiency—especially if using a dynamic QR code which transforms a short redirection URL to a QR code—crucial to Denso Wave’s initial manufacturing issues. Dynamic QR codes also, conveniently, can be used as a QR code tracking and reporting system.
The Invention of the QR Code: Surprise Outcome
QR codes aren’t going to replace UPC barcodes anytime soon. The latter is too ingrained in retail operations to be dethroned in a matter of mere decades. But many of the things that made them such a great solution for Denso Wave in the 90s makes them ideal for individuals and businesses today.
For one, they’re easy to use. The fact that they can be scanned from numerous angles makes them more user-friendly than UPC codes. See how to scan a QR code for proof.
Everyone’s phone can scan them because cameras are ideal optical two-dimensional scanners. That makes them the perfect choice for a wide array of customer-facing content, like QR code menus and QR codes on tables in bars and restaurants. They can also store large amounts of data, which makes them ideal for all sorts of QR code marketing.
And, finally, they’re easy to create and maintain. Even for small businesses. For restaurants and bars, they’re much more affordable and reliable than building restaurant and bar technologies like a menu app from the ground up. Just beware of the QR code security risks involved with free only QR code generators.
Masahiro Hara didn’t expect his invention to change the world. But look at the QR code statistics. He did.
As Mark Twain once said, “accident is the name of the greatest of all inventors.”