A Full History of QR Codes - Feb 2017
The invention of 1D barcodes revolutionised supermarkets and general stock management. But even very shortly after their introduction, their limitations were clear. There was an almost instant demand to be able to encode more than just the 20 alphanumeric characters the traditional barcode could hold.
Denso Wave Incorporated was a division of Denso Corporation and was owned by Toyota Group. At the time it was in the business of manufacturing 1D barcode scanners. Listening to feedback from users of the 1D barcode scanners they were selling, they put together a development team to come up with a solution, and they began work on a 2D barcode. When we say “team”, there were 2 people running this team.
One of the key objectives was to ensure that whatever solution they designed, it had the ability to be scanned flexibly and very fast. A lot of others at the time were looking into 2D barcodes but their focus was 100% on capacity, in the case of Denso Wave, they were willing to sacrifice a small amount of capacity if it increased flexibility and read speed.
It soon became clear that in order to achieve speed and flexibility in a 2D code, that positioning elements were critical. We talk about these a more in Can A QR Code Be Rotated, but they essentially consist of a square block in each corner of the QR Code with one of the squares being a different size to the other. There are exact ratios between black and white in each of these blocks and a lot of research was done at the time to determine which ratios would work best (based on the ratios that naturally appear least often on packaging, magazines etc).
The ratios used on these positioning blocks allow scanners to quickly locate a QR Code on any surface, even if the surface is “busy” with other content. And once located they can be analysed very quickly to understand the dimensions of the QR Code and to also determine its correct orientation.
It tooks the team nearly 18 months, but eventually they came up with a barcode that could hold up to 7000 alphanumerical characters and could be scanned in any orientation up to 10 times faster than any other code at the time. In 1994 the QR Code (Quick Response Code) was announced and born.
There was a little uncertainty at first as to who would adopt the technology, but the automotive industry stepped up and had great success with them. The QR Code was used to drive much greater efficiency in many areas including shipping. Luckily at the time food and pharmaceutical industries were looking for a solution to give more transparency about the processing and production of products and so a barcode that could store a lot more information in a smaller space was very valuable.
Arguably one of the biggest reasons that QR Codes have been able to grow as they have, is that Denso Wave made the decision to make the specifications for QR Codes publically available. This meant anyone could use them for free to create QR Code readers or Generators without paying any fees. Denso Wave do hold a patent for QR Codes (Patent No. 2938338), but have declared that they have no intention to exercise it for any QR code that follows the standards.
It wasn't until 2002 that the first smartphones came to market with built in QR Code scanner, and this really accelerated the technology. Once widespread on phones, almost anyone could read these codes and didn't require dedicated expensive hardware to do so. It is believed that Nokia were the first to bring this technology to a Mobile device.
The QR Code quickly spread outside of Japan and were approved for many standards globally. We talk about the standards in more depth at QR Code Standardisation.
But that wasn't the end of the development of QR Codes, after all nothing is perfect at its first inception and people soon began to present more sophisticated requirements to Denso Wave. The following variations on QR Codes were soon developed.
- Micro QR Code - this was made to be an even smaller code.
- iQR Code - which has a small footprint but still relatively large capacity
- FrameQR - a code that allows you to combined illustrations more easily into your codes.
We discuss the different types of QR Codes in more depth at QR Codes - Are There Different Types Of QR Code?
If you want to learn more about QR Codes, you should read What's A QR Code?
Or take a look at our FAQs
Alternatively if you know the basics and want something a bit more technical, try The Technical Stuff