QR Codes: What are they, what are they used for and how do they work?

The QR codes are everywhere today as a convenient way to store and distribute information, time to be quickly accessible for anyone and so widespread devices such as a smart phone.

The use of these 2D codes ( bidis ) is very wide; in consumption, companies and all kinds of industries. You can find them printed on the packaging of a product; on a business card; at the table in a restaurant; in a supermarket; in a museum; in the field of crypto currencies; in advertisements or in medicine for information on certain diseases and in recent times included in the ‘COVID passport’.

Sure you use them massively, but as with so many other questions in technology, you may not have stopped to think about what they have behind. We bring you up to date with this approach in which we review their creation and motivations, their more general uses, access and also the way to create them in case you need it.

What are QR Codes?

These ‘rapid response codes’ (definition of the original in English  Quick Response code ) arrived as an evolutionary leap from barcodes and motivated by the need to increase the amount of information and possibilities of use of what they were capable of offering.. They were created in Japan by a Toyota subsidiary in 1994 and spread rapidly in the Asian country at the end of that decade. Finally, in June 2000, the international ISO standard that is widely used throughout the world today was approved to become the most popular 2D code of the existing ones.

QR codes, qr code
QR code

Like any other barcode, a QR has the objective of storing information on an optical label readable by some type of machine or device. To do this, they include a two-dimensional dot matrix in square format commonly in black and white (although there are also colors) and with three squares in the corners that allow the reader to detect the position of the code.

The information capacity that they can include is defined by levels according to the number of modules that make up the matrix: from level I with 21 x 21 modules to level 10 that can include a whopping 177 x 177 modules. The most widespread QR codes for consumer use are 25 x 25 and 29 x 29 , ideal for their balance between size and capacity to host information.

Although the vast majority of modules are made in black and white colors, the standard allows some flexibility to add other colors. In these cases, the colors must maintain a sufficient contrast between light and dark so that it continues to be legible by the systems and programs of reading the codes.

They can also include graphic touches to make them more attractive and personalized. For example, including images of a person that can be used in personal information codes such as business cards. Or as a warning of diseases or allergies that can be read by health or security forces in cases of accident or emergency. Finally, the use of embedded texts is another extension to generic ones thanks to the redundancy of information based on the Reed-Solomon error correction that they include.

As for their location, you will see them in any type of material where a device arrives for its digitization, from a piece of paper, cardboard, to a piece of cloth. Or giant size on the facade of a building. And not only in physical format, but also virtually on the Web.

What are QR codes used for?

Since they can store different types of information, QR codes are used for many purposes. Among others:

  • As plain text, for example for welcome messages at conferences.
  • Addresses: personal address, business address, etc.
  • Phone Numbers – Personal or business phone number.
  • Email addresses: personal or business accounts.
  • URLs with addresses of specific web sites or web pages.
  • Links to apps, for example those that lead to the Google Play stores or the Apple App Store.
  • Payments: QR codes can store information about your bank account or credit card.
  • Online account authentication. Websites can display a QR code that a registered user can scan with their smartphone and automatically log in.
  • Wi-Fi authentication. QR codes can be used to store wireless network authentication details such as SSID, password, and encryption type.
  • Two-step verification passwords. A growing number of websites and applications are used during 2FA authentication security setup.
  • Other various uses. For example marketing; to see the menu of a restaurant; in handling virtual currencies or even funeral uses that in Japan are included in tombstones that point to web pages that contain information about the deceased.

How are QR codes used?

Its first use in Japan was to register spare parts in automobile factories and today they are used massively in all kinds of industries for inventory management, as well as in marketing programs, customer assistance or simply to include the visual identity of a company. However, the inclusion of software capable of reading QR codes and the explosion of mobile phone sales has made its use in consumption also massive.

The coronavirus pandemic that we are having to suffer has also driven them, included in the ‘COVID passports’ or simply to digitize the menus of a restaurant, avoid contact with the physical menu and reduce the risks of community transmission. Advanced tools such as the Contact Less Menu allow, through the reading of the QR codes, not only to view the different products but to directly generate an order as we would do in electronic commerce.

If in the beginning they needed fixed or handheld industrial devices to read the codes, today almost any electronic device, PCs, tablets or wearables can be used, although what has greatly facilitated their use has been the impressive deployment of smartphones.

In fact, its most common use today (leaving aside the industrial segment) is using the camera of a smart phone to scan the code and specialized software to translate it. Many smartphone manufacturers offer their own native solutions and there are dozens of third parties in the official Android Play Store or the iPhone App Store. As an example, on Android we like the Kaspersky reader and scanner, while for iOS a free one that works very well is this one from TapMedia.

All you have to do is point the camera of your smartphone towards the matrix of the QR code and the app you use will do the rest, generally in consumption with the purpose of linking it to a web page, a location map, an email, a profile on a social network or anything.

What if I want to generate them?

As you may have read, the possibilities of QR codes go far beyond the typical industrial use that is made with the barcode of a product. There are different platforms and tools to create your own QR, which can reach many of the uses that we have listed, from a web page, through a menu or business card.

In this practical article we talk about them. In some platforms its use is as simple as choosing the content that your code will have, customizing it and designing it to measure, and downloading it in different formats so that you can print or display them in digital format. These specialized services add the ability to create dynamic and editable QR codes.

Very interesting these QR codes that are everywhere today and that have become a preferred method of storing and distributing information, with the possibility of digitization from media as widespread as smartphones.

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