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From Japanese auto parts to ubiquity: A look at the history of QR codes

Masahiko Hara, who developed the QR code, says the codes' uses have surpassed his expectations. (Photo courtesy of Denso Wave Inc.)

Did you know those square QR codes we see all around us were actually invented by a Japanese engineer? But how did the codes come to be ubiquitous, and why have they spread all over the world? The Mainichi Shimbun asked their inventor, 64-year-old Masahiro Hara.

    Hara is an engineer at Denso Wave Inc., an industrial equipment manufacturer in the Toyota Group. On codes creation, he said: "I originally made them for keeping track of auto parts at factories."

    It was 1992 when Hara, then at Denso Wave parent company Denso Corp.'s barcode research and development department, began developing the QR code.

    An auto parts company, Denso Corp. was doing research and development to streamline Toyoda's kanban production method, also known as the just-in-time method. At the time, 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.

    Hara set to work developing a new code that could contain a lot of information and be scanned efficiently. He set his sights on two-dimensional (2D) codes, whose development had begun in the U.S. While barcodes are considered one-dimensional (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 or characters 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. If you look closely at one, you can see 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 swiftly recognize a QR code and read the information contained within. This is QR codes' big appeal, and is also part of its name: "QR" stands for "quick response."

    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 of scanners and other related machinery.

    At the time, QR code use was limited to institutions. The evolution of the cellphone is what jump-started its spread to everyday people.

    In 2002, Sharp Corp. introduced 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.

    With the coming of the smartphone, QR codes' uses far exceeded Hara and his colleagues' expectations. What surprised Hara most was that QR codes are now used for payments. The online payment platform Alipay, which is under the umbrella of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, began using QR codes to exchange users' payment amounts 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.

    Amid the coronavirus pandemic, QR code uses have spread even further. When the EU introduced the EU Digital COVID Certificate this summer, it used the QR code system. The system's safety and speed when scanning are part of why it was chosen.

    In 2014, Hara and his team became the first Japanese nationals to win the European Inventor Award presented annually by the European Patent Office. Even now, Hara works as general manager of Engineering Department 2 at Denso Wave to improve the QR code.

    Hara said that after retirement, he wants to get into farming. "I'd like to develop new varieties of fruit and vegetables to make them more delicious," he said. From an engineer like him, the remarks didn't seem so surprising.

    (Japanese original by Yuhi Sugiyama, Business News Department)

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