QR Code Origin: History of the 2D Barcode


Where does the QR code come from? QR Codes are everywhere these days. You see them online, during events, on advertisements, in magazines, on product packaging, and even on people’s clothing. How did they get so popular? In this article, we will explore the history of 2D barcodes and find out how they became one of the most popular barcode formats in the world. I’ve been interested in QR codes and their opportunities for far longer than they have been popular but I’m very happy to share some of my learnings with you today.

Where does the QR code come from?

Toyota Factory
Image: Toyota Europe

QR codes were first developed in 1994 by Denso Wave, a subsidiary of the Japanese automotive company Toyota. The original purpose of QR codes was to track vehicles during the manufacturing process. QR codes were designed to be read quickly and easily by scanners, and they soon became popular outside of the automotive industry as a way to track inventory and product information. The Japanese brought us not only the emoji but also the QR code. Very important elements of how we communicate nowadays.

What does QR mean?

QR is short for “Quick Response.” QR codes are designed to be read quickly and easily by scanners, making them ideal for tracking purposes. QR codes became widely used in the early 2000s due to their ability to store a lot of information in a small space. QR code scanners were developed for phones and other mobile devices, making it easy for people to scan QR codes and access information on the go.

Which side is up on a QR code?

Yes, there is actually an “up” to QR codes but to scanners, this doesn’t matter. You see, every corner has a marker tag so the scanning device knows where the information is contained, but the lower right corner tag is always smaller than the rest. This is how machines can better interpret the data and translate them to a human-usable format, no matter whether they were turned or placed upside down.

What data can a QR code contain?

QR codes can store a variety of data, including text, URLs, contact information, and even GPS coordinates. QR codes can also be used to trigger actions on your phone, such as opening a website or downloading an app. So the answer is, that a QR code can only translate the code to text data, but since URLs, or let’s say links, can be used to load any kind of resource on a browser or app, it’s up to someone’s creativity what a QR code is able to do.

Payments via QR code

In recent years, QR codes have become popular as a way to make payments. QR code-based payments are quick, convenient, and secure. QR code payments can be made using apps like Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Samsung Pay. QR code payments are also accepted by many businesses, including restaurants, stores, and hotels. Especially in China, it has been the standard way of paying for many years already. Even at a rural point of sales any customer can quickly draw their smartphone, scan the QR code that is prominently displayed somewhere on the counter and they only need to enter the payment figure into their Alipay app.

The resolution of a QR code

Different Resolution Versions of QR Code Types
From left to right: Version 1, Version 10, Version 40 (Images: Autopilot, Bobmath / Wikimedia Commons)

The higher the resolution of a QR code, the more data can be stored. The smallest and oldest resolution is a matrix of 21×21 pixels. Version 40 of the QR code standard can have a resolution of up to 177×177 pixels and therewith can provide up to 1852 characters of data. As of now version 10 is the most common type of QR code that you can find and it comes with a resolution of 57×57 pixels. It is not guaranteed that the average smartphone could scan a higher resolution code than that as of today.

Error correction algorithm lets you scan even partial QR codes

Even if a QR code is only partially visible, it can still be scanned and the data can be decoded. This is possible because QR codes contain error correction algorithms that allow them to be read even if they are damaged or obscured. So even if you’re missing about a quarter of the code, it could still possibly work to scan it. Sometimes brands even use this to place a logo or another graphic in a corner of the QR code, and it would still work fine for everybody who wants to scan it.

How does the encoding of QR codes work?

There are various modes of a QR code and how it could be encoded. There is not only a numeric and alphanumeric mode but knowing the QR code is from Japan, there is also a Kanji mode among others. Mask patterns and error correction levels are also something that is being defined when QR codes get generated.

Version 3 QR Code illustrating interleaved Reed-Solomon blocks
Version 3 QR Code illustrating interleaved Reed-Solomon blocks (Image: Bobmath / Wikimedia Commons)

In order to encode and decode systems follow the data from, pixel to pixel, from right to left in a zigzag pattern. As QR codes can only contain black and white pixels, each pixel can be represented as a bit. In order to make it easier for scanners to read the QR code, patterns are used in the data so that the scanner knows when it has reached the end of a line or if there is any error.

Security issues by carelessly scanning rogue QR codes

Carelessly scanning QR codes can be a security issue as QR codes can be used to exploit vulnerabilities. As we said above, most of the time a code contains a link and it can easily point to an URL that hosts a malicious code that could attempt to exploit security vulnerabilities on the device to cause issues and or spread to other contacts via email, text, or other means. It could also send a text to subscribe you to an SMS marketing service or even send several SMS texts to a premium number which might cost you quite a bit and it might take a bit until either you or your carrier would notice.

Closing thoughts

I know the security risk is not known to many and the likelihood of becoming a QR code hacker victim is small and yet you should be aware. Equally, any other kind of URL that someone gave you digitally or placed in the real world could cause just the same harm to all curious people that wonder what that link might lead you to. It’s not the QR code’s fault. It’s ours for not being more careful. Scan QR codes with care, just like you would not click on any wild link appearing in front of your screen.

QR codes are very useful and have a wide range of applications. They are easy to use and can be scanned using a scanner app on your smartphone, nowadays often already embedded in your native camera app. However, you should be careful when scanning QR codes as they can be used to exploit vulnerabilities. QR codes are now used in a variety of ways, including QR code marketing, fintech and payments, ticketing, and QR code tracking. QR codes have even been used to create art. Due to their popularity, they might be here to stay.

YouTube: The Story of the QR Code – What is a QR code and how does it work?

Photo credit: The feature image has been done by China Images. The pictures in the body of the article are credited directly beneath their position.

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Christopher Isak
Christopher Isakhttps://techacute.com
Hi there and thanks for reading my article! I'm Chris the founder of TechAcute. I write about technology news and share experiences from my life in the enterprise world. Drop by on Twitter and say 'hi' sometime. ;)
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