The Resurgence of QR Codes During the Pandemic and Beyond

QR code for contactless menuAs described in a post I wrote ten years ago, QR or “Quick Response” codes offer a 2D alternative to standard bar codes, enabling them to provide 1000 times the amount information. QR codes were Invented in 1994 by a young Japanese engineer named Masahiro Hara, who described them in their simplest form as a solution that connects people with information.  In my 2011 article, I discussed the emerging use of QR codes in business, primarily as a way to move TV and print advertising viewers online, allowing more information to be presented and providing detailed analytics on behavior once viewers become visitors online.  The printed media included magazines, brochures, billboards, business cards, articles of clothing, storefront stickers, in-store product descriptions, and other signs.  Massive technological changes fueled the growth of QR codes in the early 2010s—ranging from the rapid development and adoption of smart phones, the ease of generating and reading QR codes, the growth of multimedia, the emergence of the “on demand” economy, and the need for businesses to leverage analytics to steer their strategies in order to remain competitive—led to new applications, including customer loyalty programs, local search, packaging, gaining entry to wi-fi networks, and mobile commerce and payments.

With the exception of Asia, where QR codes were invented and remained an important part of the Asian economy, the use of QR codes were dismissed as a passing fad and lost their favor a few years after I wrote that blog post. While they started their comeback with their use by such social networks as Snapchat, it wasn’t until the Covid-19 pandemic hit last year that usage of QR codes surged once again as part of our contactless society. In the spring and summer, restaurants began displaying codes at outdoor dining tables instead of passing out menus. Schools, office buildings, museums, stores, salons and hospitals have been using them for health checks before admitting people into their buildings. Sites where vaccines are being administered us them for appointment sign-ins. The increased need for contactless forms of payment further fueled their usage.

Going forward, the proliferation of Augmented Reality (AR) applications will leverage QR codes to overlay a virtual reality over the physical reality to provide a more immersive and interactive experience that will especially appeal to tech-savvy customers. Direct to consumer sellers are creating QR codes integrated with AR and allow their customers to visualize the product before they shop online or visit physical stores. Different types of businesses and other institutions are beginning to use AR in specialized.  Eyeglass sellers are beginning to use them to enable customers to see how a pair of glasses will look on them and take selfies to obtain the advice of friends.  Similarly, Fashion e-retailers can let users see how a garment looks on them before they purchase it or try them on in an actual store. Furniture stores can use augmented reality to let a customer see how different pieces of furniture would look together inside their home in terms of color, placement and setting, as IKEA is already doing through their Place app. Instead of using difficult-to-read text next to works of art to learn more about the piece in the midst of other admirers, museums can place QR codes next to the art to enable viewers to step back and read this information on their smart phones.  Similarly, galleries can use QR codes to reference related works of art, pricing information, etc. to augment the experience of simply viewing the works of art.

What applications do you foresee for QR codes?  Do you think they will continue to rise and fall in popularity or endure the test of time?