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QR Codes Part 1: What is that barcode thing?

You may have seen images like the one here (left), and some people may have asked, what is that funny image? Is that a new barcode? Chances are if you are in the industry, or if you are younger than 20 you probably know what it is and are laughing at this question. It is a QR Code. This article is the first of two (maybe three) on QR codes. In this article we will uncover a brief history on QR codes, why they were created, and what they are “supposed to be” used for. The next installment coming next week will look at how to use a QR code and how you should NOT use a QR code. Hopefully by the end of this series everyone will understand the functional importance of QR codes and give a big step forward in the implementation of these fascinating and powerful two dimensional images!

A brief brief on the history of QRs

To start, and so we’re on the same page, we will look at the definition of QR code. QR stands for Quick Response. This term was originally developed by the company Denso Wave, and was intended to store product information inside a new type of barcode which could be rapidly extracted through a scanning device. After development they became popular in the automotive industry for tracking parts, and later became a phenomenon once mobile devices (smart phones) started leveraging this technology for a variety of applications.

How they Work

In terms of main stream functionality, a QR can be “scanned” by just about any phone that has a camera and an application that can understand the code. Most commonly used on smart phones (iPhone, Android, etc) these codes can deliver digital content to the end user with the click/touch of a button. The phone utilizes its camera to capture the QR code, and then uses software to decode the message via an application. Once the device recognizes the image (QR code) and decodes the message contained within in, the user has a variety of options depending on the phone and application used to scan the code. It can do all of the following:

  • Connect to a web site
  • Download files (mp3, PDF, etc)
  • Dial a phone number
  • E-mail a recipient
  • And a lot more

Technical Specs

I will divert for just a second for those technical guys and gals out there. What can QR contain? Well, in short it can contain all the following:

  • Numeric Characters (7,089 characters max)
  • Alphanumeric (4,296 characters max)
  • Binary (2,953 bytes max)
  • Kanji*, full width Kana (1,817 characters  max)

What are they used for?

Some of the QR uses have been described already throughout this text; however, the simple answer is that a QR can be used for any variety of applications. In terms of advertising, QR codes are used to create a pathway for users from printed materials to digital content. There will be more on this next week in Part 2 of the QR code. You may ask yourself the question, why don’t I just use a barcode? The answer, a barcode (as seen below) can only contain 20 characters, versus the thousands of characters that a QR can hold. (In case you skipped it, see the Technical Specs above for more on maximum variables)


As you can see in this barcode example, it takes a lot of space to fill in the 17 characters of the web address. As compared to a QR code with the same information (seen at the top of this article) that can be placed in almost any location in almost any size with almost any rotation!

Stop back next week (or register for our newsletter) and see specifically how, where, and why to use a QR code, especially as it relates to advertising!


*Kanji is logographic Chinese characters that are used in the modern Japanese writing system