What is that square thing?

It may seem that these squares of messy black and white pixels have simply popped up out of nowhere. Visually they don’t directly resemble anything we have seen before, however QR codes are actually another type of barcode.

Barcodes have been commercially successful since the 1970s, when Universal Product Code (UPC) began to be scanned at American supermarket checkouts.

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Like the earlier generation of barcode, QR codes store data that is accessed when scanned. Where they differ is that QR codes can hold both more data and data of a more complex nature.

This is because UPC barcodes can only be scanned, or read, in one direction. These one dimensional codes are perfect for storing information such as a numeric product code, however this is generally the limit of their storage capacity.

Technological advances since the 1970s have seen more complex data used by companies, as well as exploration of the possibilities which have opened up since the advent of the internet.

In an attempt to keep up with demand, UPC barcodes began to get longer and longer. Multiple barcodes even began to be stacked up on each other to store more data (IKEA are fond of this method), however this kind of barcode technology is reaching the limits of its ability. Companies have started looking for new, more compact barcodes that hold larger quantities of complex information.

QR codes have emerged to fill this need. They can hold a lot more data because they are made up of lines of code which can be scanned in two dimensions; both vertically and horizontally. This means that QR codes are capable of holding hundreds of times the amount of data of an UPC code.

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Now, a more complex code requires a more powerful scanner. This fact could have relegated the QR code to purely industrial uses, had it not been for the timely rise of the smart phone. The popularity of smart phones has had the effect of putting a scanning device in the pockets of a staggering number of people worldwide.

Naturally, marketing gurus quickly saw the potential to deliver advertising and products to customers in a simple, instantaneous scan. You can hear the marketing executives of the past positively salivating at the idea of literally delivering marketing products into the hands of consumers!

That’s not to suggest that the codes are only used for large-scale retail companies.  It’s very simple for anyone to go online and generate a QR code via a QR code maker. It is easy and very cheap to create a QR code and use it to connect people to information. Used strategically, these codes can be an effective tool not only for the retail sector, but also for any organisation that desires to connect people with information or services.

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