Living off the Grid - The QR journey

Technology of Future Nov 22, 2022

Yes, the thing that you see daily but choose to ignore thinking it’s just a puzzling image. QR (Quick Response) codes have revolutionised the way we consume services. Think about it. You might have scanned more QR codes last month than you did last year.


QR was first developed by a company called Denzo Wave to overcome the shortcomings of barcodes. The problem with barcodes was the low storage capacity. It could only store 20 characters of data and that too needed to be scanned in a horizontal fashion using a barcode reader. The automobile industry needed a way to keep track of their vehicle parts which was becoming increasingly difficult due to the limited storage capacity of barcodes.

It was then that Hara Masahiro came up with a square design that could encode binary data in an efficient way. This new square design could hold more data, can be scanned in any direction, and worked even if 30% of it was damaged. This is the reason you can see company logos in the center of QR codes. The scanner can make out the missing data by reading the encoded data nearby. The only problem - the QR codes were too ahead of time. The world wasn’t ready with the hardware for these amazing pieces of hideous squares.

The COVID effect

It was during Covid that QR saw its rise to power as it was a strict need for hands-free access to information. Patients were reluctant in bringing home potentially contaminated printed materials. One of the most important ones was payments. Since cash transactions required human interaction the most, QR was an immediate hit, with companies like BharatPe, PhonePe, and others jumping to the opportunity. In a matter of months, the world went digital with companies going crazy on hiring and governments making money hand over fist. This is when the majority of the world realised their mobile cameras can read QR codes.

But how does it work

Simply put, a QR code is basically a set of black squares on a white background. It basically has 4 main markers - data, position, quiet zone, and optional logs. The area of a QR can range from 21x21 to 171x171 grid. The more information it encodes, the bigger the size. Every scanner basically filters out the data part of a QR and constructs a grid out of it. It then assigns a value to each square based on the color - black(1) or white(0).

Here is a detailed explanation of how encoding works. And since the error margin was so high, many different types came out too.

A bit risky for sure

Since a QR is just an image with a link it was not long before malicious activities started striking. Most of the time, these codes were pasted with a malicious one over it which directed customers to some unknown sites or forced them to make payments to random accounts, etc. A couple of funny incidents like Heinz really spicing things up forced antivirus companies to enter the market saying they will allow safe scans and other suspicious messages you see on GPay today.

Code crazy in China

China as always was the first economy in the world to adopt QR codes at speeds unimaginable. While the whole world was gearing up to support QR codes, China saw beggars collecting payments; customers leaving feedback about waiters by scanning their chests that had the QR codes on them; even bridesmaids wearing them to collect gift money from guests at a wedding. More here.

And then the startups came in

By now you too realise that a QR code’s reach is only limited by your imagination. A lot of startups took it to the next level. One such startup was QR-Memories which started imprinting QR codes on the gravestones of people. They basically wanted anyone who visited their grave to get a visual representation of how the person lived their life.

During the nail-biting finale of the 15th edition of IPL, millions of television viewers were left confused when their screens went hazy. What followed was a QR code on their screens. Quick commerce platform Dunzo flashed a QR code for 20 seconds with a copy that read, “Inconvenience is regretted. Convenience is not.” The cue was to scan the QR code to land on the brand’s app.

Even whiskey companies are using these codes as a method to avoid counterfeiting.

The advent of dynamic QRs allowed even more opportunities like real-time hospitality menus, and ROI reports on marketing campaigns by companies like Google.

These little patches of black & white squares have come a long way from vehicle inventory tracking to inventory scan of your local vendor. As they say - the smallest things make the biggest difference and so it did. As we read, somewhere a startup has figured out a new way to put these patches to use.


Visakh Vijayan

Software Engineer - #minimalist #traveller

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