QR Code

At the time, around 1992, Denso used barcodes to keep track of auto parts it was shipping. But barcodes can only convert 20 alphameric characters' worth of information. The more information that needs representing, such as production history and transport, the more barcodes become necessary, leading to one product needing some 10 barcodes. Workers on the ground used readers to scan each product's barcodes every time they shipped them. During busy season, several thousand barcodes required scanning, presenting major efficiency challenges to overcome.

Masahiro Hara, at Denso Corp's research and development department, set to work developing a new code that could contain a lot of information and be scanned efficently. He set his sights on 2D codes, whose development had begun in the US. While barcodes are considered 1D with vertical lines set side by side, 2D codes comprise small cells lined like a mosaic, which allows for a lot of information to be included in a small space.

But if other shapes were near to the codes, the scanners could not distinguish codes from non-codes and took time to read information correctly. After some trial and error, Hara's QR codes were born. There are smaller black squares in three corners of the square. They are called a position detection pattern, which are unique to QR codes. The idea came to Hara when he looked out from a train window and saw a building with non-matching windows on its upper floors. Thanks to the position detection pattern, scanners switftly recognize QR code and read the information contained within. This is QR (quick response) codes' big appeal.

In addition to fast and accurate reading, the amount of information embeddable into a code rose dramatically to 1,800 kanji characters, the equivalent to an A4-size document. Equipped with these advantages, the QR code made its world debut in 1994.

Denso strategically chose not to exercise its patent rights for the QR code. Its aim was for the codes to spread widely and boost profits through sales and scanners and other related machinery.

Later, in 2002, Sharp Corp introducedd a cell phone with a QR code reader to the public. Other manufacturers followed suit. With consumers in possession of scanners, corporations began using QR codes embedded with information linking users to their websites. QR codes spread like wildfire. QR codes' uses far exceeded Hara and his colleagues' expectations.

What surprised Hara most that QR codes are now used for payments. The online payment platform Alipay, which is under the umbrella of the Chinese e-commerce Alibaba Group, began using QR codes to exchange users' payment accounts and other related information. "I never thought that (QR codes) would be used for exchanging money when we were developing the system. I'm still worried something could go terribly wrong," Hara said, laughing.
—Yuhi Sugiyama (November 10, 2021) "From Japanese auto parts to ubiquity: A look at the history of QR codes" The Mainichi