A few years back, people all over the US started to notice some odd, black-and-white boxes popping up all over the place. They were printed on advertisements. On labels and signs in stores. On product packaging.
They were a new form of barcode meant to bring the decades-old technology into the 21st century. They’re called QR codes – and Americans never really took to them.
Part of the reason for that is the fact that they were being used in places where they were totally unnecessary. And it led to the technology being misunderstood by the general public, who believed it to be yet another pointless techno-fad. But QR codes were – and still are – a staple across most of the rest of the world. And that’s because they’re a useful and multi-purpose tool when used for the right reasons.
And the COVID-19 pandemic created plenty of those reasons. One of them revolved around the need to ship vaccine doses around the country under very specific environmental conditions. And believe it or not, QR codes ended up playing a major role in making that possible.
Such innovative uses of QR codes mean that they’re becoming commonplace in the US again, so it’s worth taking another look at the technology. We’ll cover how and why they were invented, the role they played in helping the world cope with the pandemic, and why you should expect to see more of them around as the years go by.
The Birth of the QR Code
Although they seem like a recent invention, QR codes have been around since 1994. They were the result of a quest by Masahiro Hara, a Japanese engineer working for a large auto parts manufacturer called Denso. Back then, the company was struggling to maintain control of its inventory because its workers had to scan individual barcodes for thousands of items as they moved in and out of the company’s warehouses.
To solve the problem, Masahiro started to look for a way to create a barcode with a greater information density than standard barcodes, which max out at about 48 alphanumeric characters. The solution turned out to be a two-dimensional barcode that could represent up to 4296 alphanumeric characters – the QR (quick response) code.
Critically, QR codes can also represent binary data, which means they’re far more flexible than traditional barcodes. One intrepid programmer even managed to fit a rudimentary version of the classic game Snake into a QR code.
Interesting Pandemic-Driven QR Code Uses
Unlike the first time QR codes made the rounds in the US, this time they’re being deployed in some useful ways. During the pandemic, they powered touchless retail options for businesses of all kinds. That made it possible for millions of businesses to remain open even as the pandemic curtailed their ability to operate.
The technology was a lifesaver for the restaurant industry, which used it to distribute the touchless menus needed to weather the pandemic. And pharmaceutical companies are using them to report diagnostic testing information so businesses can track the health status of their employees.
Even Instagram got into the act, allowing users to generate QR codes to share profiles on the service. But the most critical and little known way that QR codes helped the US deal with the pandemic had to do with vaccines – or more specifically the dry ice containers needed to move them from their manufacturers to vaccination sites around the country.
The Role of QR Codes in Vaccine Shipping
When the first two successful COVID-19 vaccines received approval in the US, it was big news. But what also made news was the fact that the vaccines had to remain at sub-zero temperatures to stay viable until they could be transferred to single-dose syringes and injected into people’s arms. And that created a big problem.
All at once, pharmaceutical companies and shipping firms had to create a massive new “ultra cold chain” transportation network capable of moving huge amounts of vaccines around under very specific environmental conditions. To scale it up quickly, they turned to dry ice containers for the job. And that’s where QR codes came into play.
To avoid having to build costly custom shipping containers for all the vaccines, logistics companies needed an inexpensive way to monitor the temperature of standard containers. The perfect solution turned out to be a dry ice logger that uses a dynamic QR code to report the condition of goods inside shipping containers.
Because they could be retrofitted onto existing containers, and for anyone to update cloud-synced databases with nothing more than everyday smartphones, QR codes made it possible to verify global shipping infrastructures almost out of thin air.
What’s Next for QR Codes
Although it seemed like an improbable outcome, it appears that the COVID-19 pandemic has managed to make the QR code acceptable – even desirable – in the US and beyond. It represents a stunning turnaround for a technology that most people wrote off here over a decade ago. And now, experts in a variety of industries are predicting that QR codes are here to stay this time – and that they’re going to see much wider use.
One of the most important ways QR codes are expected to stick around is in the form of a mobile payments option. They’re already used that way throughout Asia and have become the mobile transaction method of choice in China, Japan, and South Korea. And now that US users seem to have accepted QR code technology, it’s only natural for us to follow their lead.
And marketers also seem ready to re-adopt the technology, especially now that UX designers in the US have figured out how to integrate them into useful designs. All of that means that Americans are going to start seeing them in increasing numbers in every aspect of their daily lives. And with some luck, they’ll appreciate – or even come to like them – this time around.