QR codes seem to be everywhere these days, including restaurant menus and wedding invitations. You can use QR codes in shipping, marketing, and can even use them for social media. But what exactly is a QR code?
Summary: A QR code, or Quick Response Code, is a two-dimensional barcode that stores information. You can access this information with a QR code scanner or the camera on your smartphone.
What is a QR Code?
We’ve offered a basic explanation of a QR code – a type of barcode that guides you to specific information. All QR codes feature a grid design (which can be square, round, etc.) formed by a series of pixels.
One could argue that QR codes are an upgrade from barcodes, which a device can only read in one direction, top to bottom. That can be quite limiting as that means they can store very little information, and only in alphanumerical format.
One of the best features of a QR code is that you can scan it with a mobile device or QR code scanner from any angle and in both directions. This seemingly simple upgrade allows us to store much more data in a single QR code.
The Revival of the QR Code
Even though QR codes are mainstream now, it’s important to know about how they came about and why they were recently popularized. The QR code was invented by the Japanese company Denso Wave Incorporated in 1994.
As Denso Wave is a subsidiary of Toyota, the chief engineer, Masahiro Hara, designed the QR code to allow the employees to track vehicles more easily. Furthermore, the QR code was meant to make the entire Toyota manufacturing process more efficient.
Clearly, the QR code is an invention from the 1990s, but its use only started expanding in the era of smartphones, or more precisely, when Apple decided to integrate a QR reader into their devices in 2017. This change made quite the splash, but gradually the hype subsided.
However, when the COVID-19 pandemic started, the QR code was the helpful tool that people and companies needed. The QR code allowed people to communicate and conduct transactions without the need to touch anything other than their mobile devices.
With the QR code, the retail stores, the hospitality industry, and the entire supply chain could continue functioning without putting workers or customers in unnecessary danger.
The use of QR codes has rapidly increased in the U.S. alone, going from 8 million in 2018 to 11 million in 2020 alone. For marketing companies, QR codes have significantly reduced the gap between online and offline content and gave them a new way to engage with the public.
How Do QR Codes Work?
To fully understand QR codes and how they work, we need to take a closer look at their anatomy. Every QR code contains binary codes represented in patterns only a QR reader can interpret.
When we look at a QR code, it simply looks like a pixelated square with three larger squares around the edges.
Once you point the QR reader or your mobile device at a QR code, it will get all the information the QR code contains as soon as it identifies the three larger squares. QR codes are made up of six basic elements.
- Quiet Zone – The white empty border around the pixelated black square is a part of a QR code. This border allows a QR code scan because it removes any interference from surrounding elements.
- Finder Pattern – The aforementioned large squares on the edges are also called finder patterns, and they essentially tell a QR code reader where the boundaries of the code are.
- Alignment Pattern – This is another square, though smaller, which allows users to scan QR codes even at a skewed angle.
- Timing Pattern – The timing pattern makes QR code scanning possible even when the code is damaged. It is represented by an L-shaped line that goes between the three large squares.
- Version Information – The small area located at the top-right of the finder pattern is called version information. It allows the reader to identify the version of the QR code (more on this below).
- Data Cells – Everything else in the QR code is just stored data, such as audio file, online store addresses, web page, contact details, payment information, or Apple App Store link.
Four Versions of QR Codes
QR codes can be used in many creative ways, but their input mode version dictates the type of code and characters they can store.
The International Standards Organization (ISO) created the ISO 18004 standard in 2000 and that outlines how the QR codes work.
But this standard has seen several revisions since then. Today, we have four widely used versions of QR code modes, including numeric, alphanumeric, byte, and kanji mode.
As the name implies, the numeric mode is designed only for 0 to 9 digits. It’s a very effective input mode, as it can store up to 7,089 QR code versions.
The alphanumeric mode includes 0 to 9 digits, plus letters A to Z, but only in uppercase. This mode also contains the symbols %, $, *, +, -, ., /, :, and the space too. The total number of possible characters storable characters is 4,296.
Some call this the “original mode” as it is designed to encode characters in the Japanese language. It was designed by Denso Wave Incorporated and can store only 1,817 characters. Nowadays, the kanji mode is somewhat outdated as it’s less effective than other QR code input modes.
The byte mode basically covers any other data which cannot be used with other QR code input modes. This mode allows up to 2,953 characters to be stored.
Types of QR Code
There are many ways to use QR codes for business but knowing how to use them correctly depends on understanding how they are classified.
While QR code examples and solutions are always increasing, all QR codes can either be static or dynamic. When trying to understand what a QR code is, knowing the distinction between static and dynamic QR codes is essential.
So, what is the difference between a static and dynamic QR code?
Static QR Codes
Once it’s live, the information on a static Quick Response code cannot be modified. If you used an online QR code generator and made made an error such as a misspelled a word, you’ll need to create a new code.
Essentially, any data within the static QR code is hard-coded or set in stone. It’s also not possible to track scanning activity, which makes them an excellent choice for storing access codes, employee ID numbers, or Wi-Fi passwords.
The permanence of a static QR code means it can also be used for:
- Email addresses
- Cryptocurrency wallet addresses
- Pre-loaded SMS
- Calendar events
- Contact details (vCard)
- Phone numbers
Dynamic QR Codes
Static QR codes are great for storing permanent information, but dynamic codes allow you to change the data as much as you want.
The data is not ingrained into the code, but only redirects users to specific locations that can be modified at any time. However, the locations are only URLs, and you can’t use this type of QR code for any encoded information.
It’s also important to keep in mind that you don’t need to re-print a dynamic QR code to change it and that you can activate and deactivate it as you see fit. Furthermore, the dynamic QR code allows the creators to track analytics and scanning activity.
Indeed, a dynamic QR code can be also called a URL QR code (although static QR codes can also be used as URLs). Still, if you’re not sure how the dynamic QR code works in everyday life, here are a few examples of how it can be used.
A dynamic QR code can redirect you to a:
- Business website
- YouTube video
- Social media page
- PayPal payment
- PDF download page
QR Code Variants
While understanding the difference between the two main types of QR codes – static and dynamic – is crucial if you want to apply them to business correctly, there are several other QR code subtypes or variants available. These variants are used for different purposes and some of them have very specific benefits.
QR Code Model 1 and 2
This can also be called the “regular QR code” as it’s what we see daily in different applications. The largest version of the Model 1 is 73 x 73 modules (black and white dots,) and holds up to 1,167 numerals. Unlike Model 1, the QR Code Model 2’s largest version is 177 x 177 modules and can store over 7,000 numerals.
Micro QR Code
Typically, you’ll find the micro QR code on product packaging, although this small QR code can be placed anywhere space is scarce.
There are four versions of micro QR codes, and they can be between five numeric and 21 alphanumeric characters. Compared to a regular QR code, this variant has only one position detection pattern.
The iQR code is very similar to the standard QR code, as it can be scanned in both directions, but it can be printed in either square or rectangular shape. It can also hold around 80% more data than the standard QR code.
Furthermore, most QR code readers are not designed to read iQR codes, so you’ll need to download a third-party app from Google Play for Android devices, or the App Store for iPhones and iPads.
This QR code subtype enables users to store sensitive information and restrict which type of device can be used to scan the code. It holds a cryptographic key that protects the encoded data.
However, you can use this variant of QR code publicly too, as the information doesn’t have to be encrypted; it only allows you the option to do so.
You might have noticed QR code that have an image at the center, an area also known as the QR code frame. One of the main benefits of frame QR codes is the visual appeal, as it allows businesses to place a logo and boost customer engagement.
But the QR code frame can also be used for specialized holograms that prevent forgery and reduce traceability. They are extremely secure and support 360-degree reading and scanning.
QR Code Examples
The best QR code generator can create a wide range of QR code types and subtypes and allow customization. QR codes today are fantastic business tools so long as you know how to utilize them.
That’s why we’ve compiled a list of QR code examples used in different industries. These solutions can offer insight into how QR codes have transformed the way we communicate and do business.
URL QR Code
We’ve established that URL codes can be both static and dynamic, and they are incredibly versatile. You can print this type of QR code on a brochure, catalog, or business card.
You can even place printed QR codes printed in store windows to direct potential customers to the store’s website. Most QR code generators are designed to create URL QR codes and allow for easy customization.
File QR Codes
If you want to create quick access to an important PDF, MP4, or JPEG file, QR codes are an excellent choice. Effortless access to files is important in industries where keeping track of download links can be a challenge. In education and healthcare, file QR codes are immensely helpful.
vCard QR Code
These days, no one should be surprised to receive a business card with just a printed QR code along with the person’s name. In the business community, vCard QR codes help stay ahead of the competition in several ways.
First, they arouse curiosity, as many people will likely take out their smartphones to scan the QR code. The other advantage is being able to store a lot more information than you normally would on a business card.
With these types of QR codes, you can provide lengthy information and attract clients and customers more efficiently.
QR Codes for App Downloads
A quicker way to download an app you want to use is to scan a QR code that leads directly to the app store.
These types of QR codes are a fantastic solution for developers who want to promote their new apps. Because they also want to track scanning activity and analytics, mobile app QR codes are usually dynamic.
Social Media QR Code
Imagine meeting someone and they ask you for your Instagram username. They might remember it (or not) or write down the name and perhaps omit a letter or a word. This can be risky, especially when you’re trying to establish an important contact.
Instead, you can use a social media QR code that comprises all the pages from different platform and provide the information in one easy scan. The other person can simply tap on the “follow” buttons and reach out immediately.
Wi-Fi QR Code
Another popular solution among the types of QR codes is the Wi-Fi QR code. These types of QR codes are typically static and allow users to get a Wi-Fi password instantly, instead of jotting it down on a piece of paper or slowly typing every character to avoid making a mistake. Wi-Fi QR codes can be found in hotels or even on vending machines.
QR Code Menus
While there’s some debate online whether the QR code menus are a welcomed innovation, they’ve certainly found their place during the pandemic. Instead of touching menus, customers were encouraged to scan the QR code which led them to the restaurant’s online menu.
Hospitality businesses have seen clear benefits from including QR codes on every dining table, as it reduces the need for printing new menus and ensures less cleaning.
QR Code Marketing
Every QR code example listed above is in some way used for marketing, but there are even more direct ways for QR codes to boost marketing efforts.
For example, businesses can encourage users to scan a QR code to receive a coupon or a special deal on a service or product.
Another amazing QR Code marketing strategy is adding a QR code to post-purchase package or email for easy product re-ordering.
Finally, reviews in marketing are incredibly powerful, but it’s not always simple getting users to leave one. That’s where QR codes can help too. By attaching a QR code to a tag, you can lead the customer to the review section on your website.
Are QR Codes Safe?
When you’re creating a QR Code campaign, you might wonder if it’s safe to store private information and other sensitive data. Unfortunately, cyber attackers can create a malicious QR code that can steal data from the device used for scanning.
QR codes are also susceptible to phishing scams that can lead to users being extorted for money. However, it’s vital to point out that QR codes cannot be hacked, so they are not unsafe by design. Also, legitimate QR codes do not collect personal information from users.
The problem derives from the fact that anyone can use a QR code generator for scamming purposes. Users can avoid scanning malicious QR codes in a couple of ways.
They can use a QR scanner with installed QR code authentication tool that alerts you to potential scams. Or they can be more careful which QR codes they scan, and make sure it’s a trusted source.
How to Generate QR Codes
Whether you want to create a text QR code or a social media QR code, you will need a reliable QR code generator. Typically, users can choose between static and dynamic codes, and choose to add patterns, logos, or colors, to make it more recognizable to readers.
Finally, you can download and print your QR code. Printing QR codes is the go-to option for offline marketing, but you can also use the digital QR code for various purposes.
How to Scan a QR Code
You’ve probably scanned a QR before, but for those who are yet to give these codes a try, let’s find out how to use them correctly. Most modern smartphones have a built-in QR scanner app, and some, like Apple products, have them installed in the cameras.
However, those with older smartphones might need to download a third-party app first, that gives them the QR scanning functionality. If your device has some version of QR scanning tool, all you need to do is:
- Open the camera or QR code reader app.
- Point it towards the QR code at any angle.
- Read the data on the screen.
In some instances, you might need to tap on the website URL to get full access.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are QR codes free?
The answer is yes and no. Static QR codes are typically free as they require one-time generation, and the information is irreplicable. On the other hand, dynamic QR codes store flexible data and are multi-functional, therefore, typically come at a cost.
What are the main benefits of QR codes?
The practical application of QR codes is pretty impressive and limited only by one’s imagination. Still, QR codes are mostly used for marketing purposes, although they have also been integrated into postal and healthcare industries, as well as education and product packaging.
Can you damage a QR code?
The answer is yes, you can. One of the easiest ways to damage a QR code is during the generation process. Often, users embed the wrong URL or one that doesn’t work at all. But if we’re talking about printed QR codes that have been ripped, the answer is – maybe. You can still scan a QR code if it has suffered less than 30% damage.
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab
Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.
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