Who Do You Think QR?
Updated: Aug 7
At this point, it's a knee-jerk reaction.
You rock up to your favourite cafe, restaurant, or theatre with your mates. Masks on, sanitiser applied. Your barista, waiter, or usher gestures to a laminated sign stuck to one of the protective screens: TEST AND TRACE. You already know the drill; phone out, barcode scanner open, try to hold it at the right distance so that it focuses on the...
2 years ago, most people would have used one of these no more than a handful of times in total; a technological fad from the end of the 20th century that reached its first underwhelming peak in popularity fifteen years later. It's a square barcode, not unlike the sort of thing you'd find on the back of a cereal box, or a tracked delivery parcel. However, QR codes are known as 'matrix' barcodes, meaning they are able to store a greater amount and range of data than a standard UPC barcode (the cereal box one).
The QR code was invented by Masahiro Hara in 1994, and was inspired by the design of the board game Go. On the surface, the mighty QR code seems like a novel (and possibly rather useful) concept. And in its native setting, it was - QR codes were first introduced in the manufacturing industry, where they were used to track and identify components on a production line. Quicker than a human reading a label, and easier to program into an automated system. Beep boop, robot stuff. Makes sense. Next.
When they were first introduced into the mainstream, you'd often find QR codes on movie posters, at tourist attractions, and sometimes at bus stops that offered live departure info. They quickly found their place in less conventional settings too - on lampposts, walls, bins, all with little or no context. You could count on these ones being links to ticketed underground gigs, third party retailers, or porn. The last one is a guess, but... Yeah.
Unfortunately, the Quick Response code failed to live up to its name. When early smartphones found their feet in the mid-Noughties telecoms market, the range of apps available was poor; on the off-chance 'New Best BarCod3Scan Lite!' didn't give you a virus, it'd rarely return a result when aimed at a code. You'd have to pray that a passing gust of wind didn't throw your balance off, your battery didn't die, or the app didn't crash. Then, and only then, could you scan the bloody patchy square with the 2 megapixel camera on your Sony Ericsson.
But wait - 4G hasn't reached the UK yet!
Fuck. Guess I'm not downloading that 5% Odeon voucher anytime soon then.
Perhaps their failure to catch on was due to consumer technological limitations. Instead, maybe the lack of popularity was down to there not being a problem for which QR codes provided a desirable solution. QR codes were initially used as a means of presenting a URL to a user in an easy-to-access manner, when in reality it's often easier to type the URL instead, or just Google it.
A New Hope
Q: So what happened?
A: In a nutshell - Covid-19.
Scenario: you need to process a larger number of data points rapidly and wirelessly. No cables, no networks, no local communications like Bluetooth or NFC. How do you do it?
This is something the transport industry has been fine-tuning for years. Why? To save paper, reduce queuing times and, more recently, keep interactions between staff and passengers to a minimum.* Why exchange physical tickets, when you can store them digitally on your phone? You might be fined if your phone dies, but that's a different discussion.
I can only assume that the inventors of Test and Trace took inspiration from the relative success of this. The process of 'checking in' to a venue is perhaps one of the greatest and most apt uses of QR code technology ever. No need to give your details over every time you enter a venue, dear customer! And why not use this QR code for the menu? Just scan for scran!**
The advancement in the quality of barcode apps has helped all of this, too. Google's Lens image recognition technology was first announced at their developer conference in 2017, and has received numerous updates (and widespread acclaim) ever since. The fact that this scanning functionality is now a native feature within Google's own app speaks volumes about where the tech giant reckons the market is at, and where it's going.
The QR code's relative lack of success in the 00s and 10s was almost entirely due to external factors. The code hasn't deviated from its fundamental form; it's the recent advancements in hardware, software, and socio-technological understanding that have allowed the use of QR codes to become firmly ingrained in everyday life. They act as a convenient solution to a number of problems, which means QR codes are here to stay for the time being.
* Or, if you're a certain popular third-party booking app: to charge passengers an unnecessary booking fee to make a profit. Always go via the train operator, chaps.
** I genuinely think I'm the first person to use this phrase, which is frankly shocking. Gastropub marketing teams, do your thing.
If you want to make your own QR codes, just search the web for a 'free QR code generator' and try a couple of different websites out, depending on what you're looking for.
At the time of writing, Clive Thompson has just released a similar article musing about much the same things. Though I made every attempt not to echo what Clive says too much, there may still be some overlap. You can check his full article out here.