# Unlocking the QR code – gimmick or game changer?

They are part of our daily lives, but to most of us QR codes are just a jumble of dots

Published 17 August 2015

QR codes are a square cluster of black and white square mini dots; they have become our boarding passes and you see them on packaging and promotions.

And here’s a good trivia night question: What does QR stand for? Come on, we need a quick response.

But what are they and are they on the way out – or on the way in? Let’s dissect one with Professor Justin Zobel, Head of the Department of Computing & Information Systems at the University of Melbourne.

“QR codes are essentially barcodes that can be read in two directions, up-and-down and left-to-right at the same time. They are even referred to as 2D barcodes,’’ says Professor Zobel. “If you look at one closely you’ll see the top two corners and the bottom left hand corner have identical mini squares; these tell the scanner, which can process it in any direction, the orientation of how it should be read.

“The basic zebra crossing-like 1D barcodes are used to manage inventory such as groceries and postal services. These codes are a series of numbers (up to about 20 characters), whereas QR codes raise the barcode to a new level. They can store over 100 times more information – about 4000 characters or 7000 numbers. This allows them provide links to websites, email addresses, and details of a product.

We can understand how they work by dissecting a simple 1D barcode, a cluster of fat and thin black-and-white lines representing a number in a straightforward code.

“The first cluster of numbers represents the company or manufacturer ID, the next cluster represents the product code and the last number is a ‘check digit’ that is used to check whether the code has been read correctly. They are only valid within the context of the company’s use.

“The code is a simple piece of computing math, by adding together the value of the digits in odd positions, multiplying by 3, then adding the value of the digits in even positions, then finally adding a ‘check digit’ that rounds up to a multiple of 10.”

QR codes can be scanned in any direction with a smartphone, but an app is needed to read them. Uptake in the mainstream has been slow. Perhaps if smartphones had a default-scanning app they may have had faster uptake.

Marketers are still experimenting with how to use them effectively. Some restaurants have replaced their takeaway menu with a QR code in their window, for example, and some primary schools use them to answer quiz questions, for things like labels on skeleton parts. The list is endless. Countries like Japan and Uruguay have companies who arrange to have them on tombstones!

So are QR codes here to stay? Professor Zobel says: “They are a great way to get digital information from the physical world. The market will determine whether they are a gimmick or a game-changer, but they are a simple, powerful tool for an incredibly wide range of tasks.”

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Engineering & Technology

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