QR Code: The Mysterious Code That Subverts Our Lives

  It is located deep in the mountains and forests of Nikko, Japan, about 150 kilometers away from Tokyo. Walking up the steps with a small red bulletin board next to it is the Erhuangshan Shrine built in 782. Like other pilgrims and tourists, I am ready to visit. There is a QR code on the bulletin board, next to it is written “Scan the code to donate incense money” in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean.
  A long, long time ago, when the Japanese went to the shrine to pray, they would bring offerings such as rice, vegetables, and dried fish. With the passage of time, direct donations have become a new trend, and some shrines have even begun to accept digital donations.
  Scan the QR code on the small noticeboard with your mobile phone to automatically jump to the donation page. There are various payment methods, including various payment platforms in China, Japan and South Korea. You can choose to donate 100 yen, 200 yen or 888 yen with one click. Historical sites and places of worship are gradually starting to offer this option, mainly because Asian tourists are now less likely to use cash. Since the outbreak of the new crown epidemic, Japan has accelerated the promotion of this electronic donation method.
  Affected by the epidemic, places of religious activities have taken a series of measures to avoid physical contact with tourists. For example, they have removed the ladle at the entrance, which was originally used to scoop water to purify the body. In addition, many traditional ceremonies use QR codes to avoid physical contact. For example, in the past, when people asked for the imperial sign, they had to get a paper signature, but now they can see it on their mobile phones by scanning the QR code. own fortune. “I never thought that the two-dimensional code I designed would one day be used like this.” Teng Hongyuan, the inventor of the two-dimensional code, said with emotion.
| Limitations of barcodes |

  In the early 1990s, Hirohara Teng of Denso Corporation of Japan invented the QR code. Today, at the age of 64, he still works in the R&D department of the company. The company’s owners are Denso Corporation and Toyota Tsusho Corporation. In the 1990s, the company gave Teng Hongyuan the task of designing a new labeling system for parts shipped to Toyota factories.
  At that time, the tracking and management of tens of thousands of parts and components on the automobile assembly line relied on barcodes. In the late 1940s, two American students invented barcodes; in the 1970s, an engineer at International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) advanced the standardization of barcodes; but in the 1990s, the limitations of barcodes were highlighted. Bar codes are inspired by Morse code, which relies on black and white bars of different thicknesses, but the problem with bar codes is that a bar code can only record 20 or so alphanumerics. This means that several barcodes are often affixed to one part of a car, and workers have to scan hundreds of barcodes every day to find the required parts. “This method was too time-consuming and inefficient,” Teng Hongyuan recalled. “In addition, in the early 1990s, Japan’s economic situation itself was not good, so customers urged us to find new solutions to increase production capacity.”

A QR code corridor in a business district in Nanjing, China, in 2017

Teng Hongyuan, the inventor of QR code

  Teng Hongyuan University has been engaged in barcode research since graduating from University. In 1992, he began to look for alternatives to barcodes, hoping to load more information in a smaller space. “There are only two people in our project team. There is no way. The company’s budget is limited.” Teng Hongyuan said. He soon came up with the idea of ​​building a new generation of barcodes in two-dimensional space. “Barcodes only have information in the horizontal direction, and the solution I am looking for should incorporate information in the vertical direction. In this way, we can multiply the information capacity. In this process, the Go board has given me a lot of inspiration. My dad plays Go.” Teng Hongyuan explained. First, he wanted to make sure that the scanner could quickly identify his code, which meant that the code was clearly distinguishable from pictures and newspaper columns. The two engineers drew hundreds of pictures for this, and finally decided to design a large white border for the new code, so that the scanner would not mistake it.
| Crucial train journey |

  ”One morning, I took a train from Nagoya to Aichi Prefecture. On the way, I found the inspiration to mark the direction of the new yards. The building outside the window is basically the same, but there is a building that stands out from the crowd, and the top of this building and the The bottom is different from other buildings in shape.” Teng Hongyuan said. After returning, he added mini black and white frames to the three corners of the yard. With this positioning design, no matter how the code is placed, scanners and smartphones can identify the correct orientation of the code.
  After more than a dozen tests, Teng Hongyuan officially launched a new code at the end of 1993, named “Quick Response Code”, which is what we often call a two-dimensional code. His invention is so subversive that not many people are willing to try it. For this he turned his attention to corporate clients, several of whom expressed willingness to give it a try. These companies quickly discovered the advantages of QR codes. The most complex QR codes can hold 7,089 characters. If there is not so much demand, they can also choose simple QR codes that can hold dozens of characters. This is not the main thing, for these companies, the key advantage of QR codes is that it supports not only letters, numbers, but also Japanese hiragana, katakana, and Japanese kanji. In addition, the space occupied by the QR code is less than 1/10 of that of the barcode, and due to the positioning design of the QR code, the scanner can recognize the code no matter how it is placed, so scanning the QR code is faster than scanning the barcode. few. In addition, the design of the QR code itself contains redundant data. Even if 30% of the QR code is damaged, the scanner can still read the data correctly. “The client told me it was a miracle.” Teng Hongyuan said with a smile.
| Waiver of royalties |

  The QR code consists of multiple small modules, which are binary, with black representing 1 and white representing 0. The scanner will first read the small square in the lower right corner of the QR code, where the coding rules selected by the designer are marked. After scanning this small square, the scanner can know whether the information in it is composed of alphanumerics or Japanese. Next, the scanner will scan from bottom to top in a zigzag pattern, reading the QR code one by one. module information.

  The read QR code information will automatically trigger instructions, it is possible to open a website, it is possible to provide positioning for map software, it is possible to open text and picture information, it is possible to automatically download documents, it is also possible to automatically connect to a wireless network or pop up shop for payment page.
  The efficiency of QR codes gradually conquered Japanese companies. In 1994, Denso Corporation of Japan launched the first QR code scanner. At first, the main customers were car companies and their suppliers. Later, office supplies manufacturers and wholesalers also became customers of QR codes. Later, even Japanese racetracks joined in, applying QR codes to horse racing lottery tickets. “The mad cow disease crisis broke out in the late 1990s. In order to better track the source of beef and beef products, supermarkets began to mark QR codes on the outer packaging of products.” Teng Hongyuan recalled.
  In order to better promote QR codes, Denso Corporation of Japan decided to retain the patent rights, but does not charge royalties. Subsequently, the company announced a lot of technical details of the QR code. “We came to a consensus on this without much discussion internally. It’s not surprising because it’s the only way we can push the new standard so our customers and other companies can embrace QR codes as quickly as possible.” The company’s strategy is true It worked, and it didn’t take long for more than a dozen small companies to design QR codes.
| 2017: The inflection point of QR codes |

  At the beginning of the 21st century, the first generation of mobile phones that could scan QR codes came out in Japan, and the Japanese people began to gradually come into contact with QR codes. In other countries, QR codes were not widely used until the advent of smartphones. In the beginning, QR codes mainly appeared on billboards and promotional posters, and users often obtained web links or shopping mall coupons after scanning them. Since then, QR codes have become an essential part of daily life in several Asian countries. “2017 was a real turning point. Apple phones and Android phones directly built the function of scanning QR codes into the camera function. In the past, when users scanned QR codes, they had to download special application software separately.” Teng Hongyuan Say.
  Long before the outbreak of the new crown epidemic, the Chinese were used to paying with QR codes. Supermarkets, taxis, subways, cinemas and restaurants are equipped with QR code scanners, which can quickly scan WeChat or Alipay payment codes on consumers’ mobile phones. In India, the popularity of QR codes is mainly driven by local mobile payment platforms. An analyst from market research firm Juniper Research said: “In these two countries, e-wallets with QR codes as the core have become the mainstream method of mobile payment.” In addition, the analyst also mentioned that QR codes are used in Singapore. The development momentum is also very rapid. “In September 2018, Singapore launched a unified QR code payment system, and since then, the utilization rate of QR codes in Singapore has increased significantly.”

In the “Choice Base” unmanned store in Shibuya, Japan, customers only need to scan the QR code corresponding to the product to see the detailed information of the product, and can directly place an order online and pay with an electronic wallet. Daily delivery of items.

  Since the outbreak of the epidemic, South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries have gradually boarded the QR code payment bus. QR codes offer an ideal solution to avoid contact. At the same time, some Asian countries have also begun to promote the electronicization of air tickets, museum tickets, movie tickets, brochures, business cards and other printed materials.
  Kitchener’s restaurant in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district has completely scrapped paper menus to avoid the spread of the virus. When guests arrive at the store, they only need to scan the QR code on the table to order, and the payment is also done online. If you don’t want to pay in this way, you can also go to the front desk to scan the QR code to check out. There is an unmanned store called “Choice Base” in Shibuya not far away. The products are placed in the glass window. Customers only need to scan the QR code corresponding to the product to see the detailed information of the product. If you like it. You can place an order directly online, pay with your e-wallet, and the store will deliver the item the next day.

  QR codes have enormous commercial potential in public health.
| The prospect of QR code in the field of medicine |

  Two-dimensional codes have become an important means of epidemic prevention in China. People take the subway, go to shopping malls, and go to restaurants to display green codes. On the one hand, people who have been to medium and high risk areas can avoid entering public places. On the other hand, once new cases, and close contacts can be identified as soon as possible. Teng Hongyuan said that Western countries have also shown great interest in his QR codes again. As he said, “QR codes have huge commercial potential in the field of public health.” The
  new crown epidemic has made many European and American companies realize the importance of QR codes. commercial value. Whether it’s marketing or boosting customer loyalty, QR codes can play an important role. Businesses can use QR codes to promote their own apps, and they can also use QR codes to collect more customer information to provide customers with customized offers.
  In medicine, Denmark is developing medicines printed with edible QR codes. “This new type of drug can help us solve many of the challenges encountered by traditional medicines,” explains Rantanen, a professor at the University of Copenhagen. If there is an edible QR code printed on the medicine, the patient will not take the wrong medicine and will not take the counterfeit medicine.

In Xilinshui Village, China, local villagers constructed a giant QR code with 130,000 cypress trees. People can scan the code in the air to enter the local tourism WeChat public account.

In Bern, Switzerland, in September 2021, scanning a health code is required to enter a public place.
| Colored QR Code |

  Teng Hongyuan has reached the retirement age, but he is still working hard to improve the QR code. In the next step, the QR code will be loaded with more information. He plans to colorize the QR code so that it can hold rescue messages and smaller videos. Even in the event of natural disasters such as earthquakes and the mobile phone has no signal, the color QR code can still scan the information. In addition, color QR codes can also benefit critically ill patients. Their medical records and medical data can be recorded in the QR code and printed on bracelets or necklaces. The doctor can immediately know the patient’s condition by scanning the QR code. Teng Hongyuan said: “Everything is possible, the journey of QR code has just begun.”