Conceived in the early 1990s, the QR Code has spread exponentially during the pandemic. Its creator, Masahiro Hara, is one of the many continuing to innovate his most famous invention, which has changed everything from medicine to how we dine.
There's a small red sign at the foot of the steps leading to the Haiden pavilion of Futarasan-jinja, a Shinto shrine founded in 782 by a Buddhist monk. We are in the heart of a cedar forest in the sacred mountains of Nikko. Before going up to pray to the kami, the spirits of the temple, pilgrims and tourists crowd in front of the sign installed just two years ago.
Smartphones in hand, they scan a QR Code, under a few lines explaining — in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean — that it is good manners to make a "small donation" when visiting a shrine.
For centuries, Japanese people have offered small bags of rice, vegetables or dried fish to the deities to encourage their prayers to be heard. Offerings were placed in a large dark wooden offering box, the "saisen-bako." Later, the inhabitants preferred to throw money directly into it, which was then collected for the maintenance of the site. They often donated five-yen coins, whose pronunciation "goen" resembles that of the word "fate" or "luck." Nowadays, some people opt to use the QR code.
QR codes for traditional religious rites
In Nikko, the QR Code leads to a simplified payment site compatible with major Asian e-wallet applications. On the phone's screen, several large boxes offer payments of 100 yen, 200 yen or 888 yen, a lucky number in China. In one click, the donation is confirmed. Initially set up in a handful of historical and religious sites to capture donations from Asian tourists who have lost the habit of using cash, these digital offering systems have multiplied in Japan with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Large shrines were suddenly prompted to limit contact between visitors and with site objects. They removed their "hishaku,” the ladles of sacred water for purification at the entrance of buildings, and unhooked the thick ropes usually used to ring bells in front of the altars. They have installed more and more QR codes to accompany each traditional rite.
In the past, visitors crowded around a box for "omikuji," little divinatory papers promising you more or less lucky fortunes. Now you now get your message by scanning a code placed on a sign at the entrance. "I would never have thought that my system would be used for this kind of application," says Masahiro Hara, the inventor of the QR Code.
Darkly dressed, with a shy smile and gray locks falling over his ears, the 64-year-old engineer still works in the research department of the Denso Wave company, where he designed the code in the early 1990s. At the time, his company, which is controlled by Japanese car components giant Denso and the Toyota Tsusho Group, asked him to work on a new system for labeling parts sent to Toyota factories.
The invention of the Quick-Response code
Up until then, Toyota and Denso, its main supplier, had been using barcodes to track and manage the inventory of the tens of thousands of components passing through their assembly lines. But the system, invented in the United States in the late 1940s by two students and standardized in the 1970s by an IBM engineer, began to show its limits.
Its more or less thick black and white lines, inspired by Morse code, can only represent about 20 alphanumeric characters. Small car parts ended up with several labels and workers were forced to scan hundreds of barcodes every day to find the right components.
“The method was too time-consuming and no longer effective," recalls Hara. “And in the early 1990s, the economy in Japan was not good. Customers were urging us to help them increase their productivity.”
Toyota was looking to improve its "kanban" system, a just-in-time production system that minimizes inventories, where each component must be delivered "just in time" before being assembled.
When Hara presented the 'Quick Response Code,' there was little reaction; it was too revolutionary
Hara had been working on the development of barcode scanners since graduating from Hosei University. In 1992, he began working on an alternative solution that could hold a much larger amount of information in a smaller space.
"There were only two of us on this project because the company didn't have a very big budget," he says. The idea of a two-dimensional construction quickly took hold.
Hara explains that, "Unlike barcodes, which operate simply horizontally, we needed a system that could also accumulate information vertically. This way, the integration of data could be multiplied. And I thought of the gridded Go board. I used to play it a lot with my father."
The new design, however, had to provide an obvious way for scanners to read it and ensure that the devices would automatically identify an organized code, not just any image or a column of newspaper text. The two engineers studied the black and white ratios in hundreds of pages and plates to make sure they could create a distinct solution. They decided to frame their code with wide, white margins that were immediately recognizable.
QR code creator, Masahiro Hara.
A decisive train ride
One morning, while taking the train from Nagoya to Aichi, Hara had the idea of marking the code with orientation marks: “The facades of the buildings in front of me at the window all looked the same, but one of them suddenly stood out to me with its different shapes and volumes at the top and bottom."
He then added black and white mini-squares to his code, sorts of eyes on three of the corners of the vignette. The trick allowed scanners, and later smartphones, to spot the direction of the code.
At the end of 1993, after dozens of tests, Hara presented the "Quick Response Code" solution to his management. There was little reaction; it was too revolutionary. He then turned to his customers. Several manufacturers were ready to try it out. They quickly understood the advantages of the new system, which can encapsulate up to 7,089 characters in its most detailed version, comprising 177 modules in height and as many in width.
With a redundancy solution, it also works even if 30% of the code has been damaged or torn off.
For simpler functions, the code, available in some 40 sizes, may contain only a few dozen characters. A key advantage for Japanese companies was that the new code accepted not only the letters of the alphabet, numbers and dozens of symbols, but also the various Japanese characters, whether in hiragana and katakana (phonetic symbols) or kanji (the classic ideograms).
Requiring 10 times less space than the traditional barcode, QR codes are deciphered much faster by devices that can, because of the position markers, approach it in any direction. With a redundancy solution, it also works even if 30% of the code has been damaged or torn off.
“One customer told me it was magic," says Hara.
The design is comprised of a series of modules, using a binary coding where black is one and white zero, organized in a kind of grid. The digital reader will first read a box at the bottom right of the drawing, specifying the type of encoding that has been chosen by the designer.
The scanning device will then know, for example, if the message to be deciphered is composed of alphanumeric data or Japanese characters. Then it will go up the grid in a zigzag, passing from one box to another to decipher, one by one. Each character is translated into several black squares according to a correspondence of values established in the ASCII table, a kind of universal code used in software. For example, an "m" will correspond to the value 109 expressed in the box by a single drawing of small black and white dots. The "." is equivalent to 46.
Magazines to discount coupons
After deciphering this message, in a few fractions of a second, the reader will automatically activate the function contained in the code — open the URL of a website, point to a location in a geo-location application or display a predefined text or image. It can also trigger the download of a PDF file, automatically connect to a WiFi network or validate a payment in a store.
Conquered by this efficiency, Japanese manufacturers gradually converted from 1994 when Denso Wave launched its first dedicated scanners. It started with the automotive giants and all their suppliers. Then the producers of office supplies and distributors. Even Japan's state-controlled betting system began using them for their tickets.
Hara recalls that "In the late 1990s, the mad cow crisis pushed supermarket chains to improve the traceability of their meat and products. They then converted to the QR Code to mark their packaging.”
The QR code is seen as an ideal solution to limit contact and touching
To ensure rapid diffusion of the solution, his group decided to keep the intellectual property patents related to the invention but not to exercise its rights to royalties. The company then shared the code specifications widely. Hara says, "It was not a big debate internally. It was the only way to get the standard adopted quickly by our customers and the rest of the business world." The strategy worked, and dozens of smaller companies began offering their code creation services.
The general public in Japan slowly converted in the mid-2000s with the release of the first cell phones equipped with dedicated QR code readers. Abroad, it was the arrival of smartphones that allowed the use of the small black and white stickers to be more widely spread.
They first blossomed in magazines, on advertising posters and on local authority billboards, mainly to lead to a website or a platform offering discount coupons. QR codes later became part of everyday life in several Asian countries. Hara notes a real turning point in 2017 when iPhones and Android devices directly integrated the code reader into their camera because before, you still had to have taken the initiative to download a special app.
Panhandling with WeChat
Even before the pandemic, people in China got into the habit of using this system to pay for most of their daily expenses. Supermarkets, cabs, subways, cinemas and restaurants are equipped with scanners to read the QR codes that appear on the smartphones of customers using the two major mobile payment applications, WeChat Pay from Tencent and Alipay from the giant Alibaba.
“Today, I go for weeks without ever using cash or credit cards," says a French expatriate in Shanghai. “There are even now homeless people who ask for money by pointing to their WeChat Pay QR code printed on a piece of paper they wear around their neck.”
In India, it is the Paytm platform — in which Masayoshi Son's Japanese fund SoftBank and Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway fund have invested — that has largely contributed to popularizing this practice.
Juniper Research analysts say that "In both countries, QR Code-centric e-wallets have become the dominant form of mobile payment mechanisms.”
They also note strong growth of this system in Singapore: "In September 2018, the Singapore government launched a standardized QR Code infrastructure, resulting in high usage rates locally.”
People queuing up for Sinovac vaccine shots scan the LeaveHomeSafe contact tracing app outside a community vaccination center in Jordan.
A new way to dine
Other Southeast Asian countries, such as South Korea and Japan, have converted to this payment solution on a massive scale since the beginning of the pandemic. The QR code is seen as an ideal solution to limit contact and touching. As in the West, physical airplane, museum and movie tickets as well as marketing flyers and business cards are gradually vanishing. The presentation of a QR code is now enough to access the website of one's company or a personal email account.
In the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, the restaurant "Kichiri" quickly did away with paper menus, suspected of transmitting the coronavirus, in favor of digital versions. The customer scans the QR code of his table, selects their dishes on the restaurant's website, which opens automatically, and pays the bill online. If not, they will go to the cashier and pay by scanning another code.
Not far away, in Shibuya, the sleekly designed ChooseBase store no longer has salespeople but only products accompanied by small QR Codes installed on elegant glass holders. The customer asks about the performance of a moisturizer. They scan the sticker and find themselves on a site explaining the care and its composition.
If they are satisfied, they buy it directly online with their electronic wallet and have it delivered to their home the next day. Japanese distributors see this organization as a way to reduce health risks and also as an ideal solution to respond to the staff shortages that hit the country's stores, malls and supermarkets.
Edible QR codes
While Japan has not yet used these codes to monitor COVID outbreaks, their use for health purposes has become widespread as of 2020 in China and South Korea. It is not only a question of displaying a personal code testifying, as in France, to one's vaccination, but also of being tracked to try to control the epidemic.
In Beijing, people must always show a green QR code at the entrance of malls, restaurants and train stations to prove that they have not passed through risky places or that they have not met infected people in the last few days. By scanning themselves at the entrance to all public places, they also automatically share their personal data so that they can be immediately found and isolated by the authorities in case they are found to have been in contact with an infected person.
"The potential applications in health, business and finance are enormous," says Hara, who has seen a resurgence of interest in his invention in the West.
'We are just at the beginning'
After a long period of disdain for the QR code, many American and European companies have rediscovered it with the COVID crisis and are now interested in its potential for marketing campaigns or loyalty strategies. They are taking advantage of code activations to encourage downloads of their applications or to collect more customer data. Increasingly, they are also linking their codes to automatic, personalized coupons.
Meanwhile in medicine, Danish researchers are working on the first medicines with edible QR codes. Jukka Rantanen, a pharmaceutical technology professor at the University of Copenhagen says that this could address many of the challenges we face with traditional pharmaceuticals, such as tablets. These printed drugs would allow the patient to ensure that they are not getting the wrong treatment or that they have not received a counterfeit product.
"There are several therapies where this solution would be a real plus," says Rantanen, who points in particular to cannabinoid-based care, where the doses are extremely personalized and the risks of abuse are significant.
A colorful future
Rantanen’s team has already succeeded in experimentally printing QR Code stickers with a dedicated ink containing precise doses of CBD and THC, two ingredients extracted from cannabis. "Now we are looking for a partner who can create a new generation of printers for these pharmaceuticals," says Rantanen, who hopes to see this project quickly lead to commercial applications.
For his part, Hara says that "with future generations of code, more and more spectacular initiatives will be possible.”
Refusing to talk about his retirement, he himself is working on enriching his code, which could soon contain even more data. The use of colors is now being considered. It’s an innovation that could make it possible to engrave emergency messages or even short videos entirely in the code.
They would be activated even if a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, had "cut off" the internet and telephone networks. There’s also the potential to develop a QR Code worn as a bracelet or necklace that contains all the essential medical data of a patient. In a split-second scan, the doctor could find out the patient's latest health status. "Everything is possible. We are just at the beginning," says Hara.