A QR code renaissance?

Illustration: Harry Haysom

The humble QR code has long been a joke in the creative industry. However, the resurgence of this simple and clever innovation only goes to show that sometimes it takes time (or a global pandemic) for the real benefits of a technology to come to light.

A recent survey by Statista found that almost 32% of respondents had scanned a QR code in the past week and more than 8% in the past 24 hours. Needless to say, the results of this survey would have been very different around this time last year, and it is Covid-19 that has caused this sharp surge in awareness and use, but it does promise some unexpected creative uses of the technology now emerge that it has become ubiquitous around the globe.

These quick response codes were originally invented by Japanese engineer Masahiro Hara to track auto parts in a factory. While the codes may look ugly and functional, it is an elegant piece of technology. Each code is a unique two-dimensional square that anyone can use to store up to 4,200 characters (compared to 20 characters on the barcode, the intended predecessor) and trigger a digital call to action.

While the codes may look ugly and functional, it's a sleek piece of technology

The QR code in particular quickly became the cornerstone of the smooth Chinese economy. With code scanning, you can do anything from ordering groceries in restaurants to unlocking city bikes, exchanging contact information and making payments. Apple quietly rolled out an update in 2017 that allowed the iPhone camera to recognize QR codes. Outside of China, however, it never really caught on, and it wasn't until this year that it became more widespread.

With such a surge in popularity, it is time to differentiate the visual presentation of the technology beyond the current standard and play with it. Some will even hope to adopt brand-level QR code functionality. Images were posted online earlier this year revealing Apple-branded QR codes labeled “Cosmic,” made up of cones of different sizes instead of a matrix of squares. Typically for Apple, they seem to be beautiful and functional at the same time.

Spotify has also developed its own codes that can be generated for sharing songs, artists, and playlists. They work like a smart mail barcode (as described in this fascinating blog post by Peter Boone) and work well from a brand perspective as they look like some sort of futuristic music notation.

Another likely beneficiary of the QR code renaissance is augmented reality. While many AR experiences rely on cutting-edge hardware to read the geometry of 3D space, you'll find that each QR code has three squares at its corners. This helps the scanners to focus quickly (hence Quick Response), but also to anchor the AR experience in a fixed relative position. With the growing popularity of platforms like Spark AR and the progressive move away from face filters towards so-called "World AR", the new, more comprehensive understanding of QR codes could offer a combination that finally makes augmented reality enter the mainstream.

The new, more comprehensive understanding of QR codes could offer a combination that will finally make augmented reality mainstream

We shouldn't be wrong to conclude that QR codes will soon replace the URL, but the surge in usage could at least be a mild ointment for businesses suffering from long web addresses.

Expect QR codes to appear in US and UK advertising with the same widespread use as China, and increasingly inventive uses as creative companies find new ways to visualize this simple but underrated technology. And if nothing else, we all hope they stay longer than the pandemic that brought them back into fashion.

James Britton is Group Managing Director at Stink Studios and visiting professor at Kingston University. stinkstudios.com