QR Code: An Image That Works

From the corona test to the swimming pool ticket: suddenly the QR code is everywhere. To the unexpected comeback of a technology

You have to have it scanned before entering the vaccination center. To call up the result of his corona rapid test. They are emblazoned on admission tickets, train tickets, deposit receipts and receipts - you can even use them to make contactless payments: At the moment, little works without QR codes.

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In many places, the use of the small checkerboard pattern has become a prerequisite for participation in public life - or it is simply faster and more convenient thanks to the fast scanning. They open the door for us back to indoor catering, to the theater and to vacation.

The QR code looks like abstract art à la Victor Vasarely. But it is an image that works. It connects the physical world with the digital data that provide information about us on servers on the Internet. Because it simplifies how we look up something, how we call up information about others or present information about ourselves. You no longer have to laboriously type web addresses into the browser or fill out forms on paper. A casual panning with a reader or another smartphone over the checkerboard pattern and the person opposite knows whether the quick test was negative or we have paid for our ticket, and it goes on. Or not. The QR code has become a helpful accomplice when it comes to recording and storing our behavior.

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It is no coincidence that it is used particularly often again during the pandemic: the QR code is also the emblem of a new form of contactless traffic, which for epidemiological reasons suddenly seemed advisable after the technology had been little used for a long time. A square made of squares now contributes to the smooth functioning and will probably remain with us in post-corona capitalism and administration. But the QR code is also an example of what some call digital compulsory and one can rightly criticize: If only the Luca app is used for contact tracking in the beer garden instead of paperwork, you stay outside, should you insist completely still wanting to live without a smartphone or without this dubious app.

Back thanks to Corona

It's an amazing career for a technology that just recently seemed a little out of style. The QR code never really caught on in Germany: Before Corona, they rarely appeared on billboards or signs on museum exhibits, although they are actually an ideal means of connecting physical objects with virtual information.

Before 2019, only five percent of Europeans used QR codes when shopping and nine percent of Germans had scanned a QR code at all. And that even though almost everyone has the necessary device in their pocket. In a survey in September 2020, 72 percent of respondents suddenly said they had used a QR code in the past month.

It was Toyota

The technology was not originally intended for end users. The "QR" stands for "Quick Response" and the term already indicates where the technology originally came from: from the world of increasing efficiency and accelerating logistics and trading processes.

The QR code was developed in Japan in 1994 by a team from Denso Wave, a company belonging to the Toyota group of companies. Chief developer Masahiro Hara was asked to invent a machine-readable code for the company that could easily be used to track cars and auto parts during production. The procedure, thanks to which we get access to the dining room again in Corona times, was originally only supposed to record where in the supply chain there are steering wheels and injection nozzles. Previously, this was regulated with a conventional barcode, as you know it from the supermarket. But for complex logistics processes such as the tracking of vehicle components, the sum of the information that a barcode can store was no longer sufficient.

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The one-dimensional bar or bar code is the ancestor of the two-dimensional QR codes: He was born in the sixties in the US , but continued in Japan by , entered as the country into a period of great economic growth and supermarkets emerged that a wide range of Goods from groceries to clothing were sold. These goods were paid for at cash registers, where each price had to be entered by hand. As a result, many cashiers suffered from tendinitis or numbness in their wrists. Thanks to the barcode, scanner tills could be developed in which the goods only had to be swiped over an optical sensor.

With the increasing spread of barcodes, their limits became clear: They could only store 20 alphanumeric characters, i.e. sequences of the digits 0 to 9 or the letters A to Z. For complicated logistical processes, Masahiro Hara should now develop an optically readable code that could contain more data - including the Kanji characters used in Japanese. Incidentally, it is no coincidence that his invention looks like the constructivist design of a Bauhaus-inspired architect: Hara was inspired by a walk when he noticed a high-rise building with a uniform facade made up of lots of squares, he said later.

A logistics instrument becomes a design object

But at the same time, its code must not have any similarity to other symbols commonly used on packaging, in order to avoid confusion when scanning. Hara therefore began to systematically examine books, leaflets, magazines, cardboard boxes and other printed matter to identify a black and white pattern that appeared on packaging as rarely as possible. After months of computer-aided image analysis, he was certain : rectangles with squares in three corners were so rare that confusion was impossible. This structure also resulted in a code image that could be read and processed by the computer regardless of the scanning angle.

A year and a half after the start of the development project, the first version of the QR code was created, which was able to encode not only a little more than 7,000 digits, but also Kanji characters . And this code image could not only store a large amount of information, it could also be read ten times faster than other codes. The abstract patterns remain machine-readable even if they are damaged or dirty. And they allow structured appending: If more data is to be stored than can fit on a QR code, the information can be divided into several codes, which are combined during scanning in such a way that the original content is retained.

Initially, QR codes were only used by Toyota in production. But after the process was recognized as an ISO standard in 2000 , it began to spread to other areas in tech-savvy Japan. Today QR codes are ubiquitous, especially in China, where they are used on a large scale by companies like Alibaba.

Toyota had the QR code patented, but decided not to use this patent. That is why today everyone can generate their own QR codes on the Internet and even design them in different formats, colors and designs with individual logos and symbols. An organizational tool in the logistics industry has become a design object.

In an interview, inventor Masahiro Hara stated that he had not seen the use of QR codes coming today: "At that time I had the feeling that I had developed something great and expected that it would soon be widespread in the industry. But it is used by everyone today, even as a method of payment. It was completely unexpected. "

Code art

Because of their proximity to abstract art, QR codes have also been used by artists. Berlin-based Aram Bartholl created his Google portraits from 2007 to 2013 : QR codes that were hand-drawn or even stamped with fingerprints. If you scan this with your smartphone, the device opens Google's image search and shows photos of celebrities like Edward Snowden or Kate Middleton.

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The Johannitern came up with another innovative use of the QR code : To deter gawkers and accident photographers, the ambulances of the accident service have recently been decorated with a QR code pattern. Now if someone takes a cell phone snapshot of an emergency and has the cube pattern in the picture, the phone automatically opens a website that says, "Gawking kills!"

With the QR code, digitization has arrived on the surface of things. You may or may not find the little squares beautiful - they ensure that everything can be connected to the Internet and its data storage and services. Without cables and without a keyboard, just with the help of an extremely productive picture. Thanks to Corona, this technology is now widespread for contactless and fast digital applications. It is unlikely that it will again - literally - disappear from the scene.

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