The Little-Known Story of the Birth of the QR Code

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An Indispensable Technology

People are increasingly turning to QR codes to access information, and, more recently, pay for goods and services. The technology was the brainchild of an engineer at Aichi-based manufacturer Denso. We interviewed the inventor, who shared some surprising facts about how the codes came about.

QR codes are now so ubiquitous that hardly a day goes by without seeing one. What is more, novel uses are constantly being though up. Recently, the codes have even begun to appear on gravestones as part of a service that provides information on the deceased.

Denso engineer Hara Masahiro invented the QR code 25 years ago. The division where he worked was subsequently split off into a subsidiary named Denso Wave, where he now holds the post of chief engineer.

Inspired by a Board Game

Hara says that the company previously used barcodes to keep track of parts, but that the system was inefficient. “There were upward of ten barcodes on any one box,” Hara recounts. “Employees got tired of having to scan boxes multiple times, and this led us to come up with a code that would enable a large volume of information to be conveyed in a single scan.” From the need to keep better track of car parts sprang the QR code.

Hara Masahiro, chief engineer at Denso Wave.
Hara Masahiro, chief engineer at Denso Wave.

A QR code is characterized by a two-dimensional pattern of square black and white dots. With this pattern, it is possible to imbed 200 time more information than a standard barcode.

QR codes are packed with information.
QR codes are packed with information.

The codes can contain basic information like links to websites or large volumes of data consisting of over 4,200 alphanumeric characters that are encoded into the patterns. To access the information, a person needs only scan the QR code.

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Hara explains that the inspiration for the technology came from his penchant for playing strategy games: “I used to play go on my lunch break. One day, while arranging the black and white pieces on the grid, it hit me that it represented a straightforward way of conveying information. It was a eureka moment.”

While Hara gets the credit for his inspiration, Denso’s development team is responsible for building the codes into what they are today. “Coming up with the idea is one thing,” states Hara, “but you need a system that supports its use as well.” Denso lacked the resources to develop the technology on its own, and instead chose to make the patents open in the hopes that other companies would use QR codes.

The strategy worked, and soon firms around the country were utilizing the technology. With the advent of the mobile phone equipped with cameras, QR codes began to come into their own.

Ever-Growing Applications

One ATM being trialed by Kagoshima Bank scans a QR code that contains information on the account holder’s facial features and other details, in lieu of an ATM card. Using a built-in camera, the ATM is able to determine whether the person operating the ATM is in fact the account holder, and will not dispense cash until a positive identification is made.

QR codes can also be found on the doors of subway carriages on Tokyo’s Toei subway system. A camera mounted on the platform scans the codes, allowing the gates on the platform to be opened in sync with the train doors.

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In the past, automating platform gates in this way would have meant tens of millions of yen in modifications. However, with the QR code system, the cost to the operator is significantly less, amounting to only a few tens of thousands of yen.

This Aichi-born technology is also utilized by firms overseas. At Amazon Go, an unmanned convenience store in Seattle, QR codes are used to identify shoppers entering the premises. The low-cost of implementing QR Code technology has also made the codes an affordable choice for companies in developing countries.

The Sky’s the Limit

Hara is glad to see his idea has caught on and is driving an increasingly wide array of state-of-the-art services. However, he insists there are still boundless potential for the codes. “I would like to see QR codes containing medical information distributed to individuals for use in disaster situations,” he exclaims. “Staff at evacuation centers could scan the codes, allowing them to provide appropriate medical services.” Going forward, he believes that new applications will emerge that go far beyond what he initially dreamed.

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