How Exactly Does QR Code Technology Work?

Mar 29, 2021
A hand with a phone scanning a printed QR code
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There is a reason why some of the biggest tech firms use QR codes. In a span of a few years, more companies have started to embrace QR codes. In fact, the technology has come to the point where you can use a reliable QR code generator like Supercode and produce a customised QR code in 5 seconds. Whether it’s Chinese startups or the Silicon Valley tech landscape, companies view QR codes as an effective self-service mechanism to exchange information.

Range and Usability of QR Codes

Currently, the use of QR codes extends beyond retail stores and payment transactions. Most recently, QR codes have also become a help to drive more awareness about augmented reality. At its core, a quick response code is a readable code that mobile devices can process quickly. But the possibilities are endless once you understand technology’s compatibility and diversity for industries.

For example, QR codes are widely used in healthcare for authentication of products and traceability, in publishing for advertising and mobile app promotions, in gyms for educating people how to use equipment and much more. By exploring examples of the biggest and most creative companies integrating QR codes into their digital campaigns, one can see that QR codes are now used in almost all industries. 

The adoption rate of QR code technology by consumers is also on a significant rise. In addition to seeing QR codes in all restaurants and retail store premises, people are now getting used to QR codes being integrated in the track and trace systems to help prevent the increase of Covid-19 cases. QR codes are here to stay and that is why it is worth digging into what QR codes are and how they work. 

What is a QR code?

A quick response code, or a QR code, is a 2-dimensional code that allows an electronic device like a cell phone camera to pick up more than 4,000 characters in the blink of an eye. It is readable within seconds and hence called a “quick” response code. 

QR Reader and QR Codes: How Does it Work?

When a user scans a QR code, it relays a wide range of information. The patterns inside QR codes come across as binary codes. In fact, you can interpret these codes to find out the coded data. You can use a QR reader to spot an industry-standard QR code.

Essentially, a QR reader evaluates this standard based on three squares outside each QR code. Once it determines three shapes, it can find the contained information inside the square of a QR code. You can also use a QR reader to analyze the entire QR code and then break down the information in a grid format.

The reader can also check each square grid and designates a specific value based on a white or black pattern. After that, the QR reader combines grid squares to create bigger patterns.

QR Code Structure

Today’s modern and advanced QR code contains several components. Each component creates a pixel pattern that resembles a crossword puzzle. What’s interesting is that each component of a QR code has a purpose to communicate a piece of information. It is the timing, print direction, empty spaces, error tolerance that distinguishes one QR code from the other. 

QR code structure
Image source: Walt Tuvell

QR Code Scanning

Today almost all QR codes are easily scanned by modern smartphones or tablets. There is a wide variety of apps that offer QR scanning on iOS and Android devices. Mostly, you just need to open the app, and it will scan a particular QR Code with a single touch automatically. 

Many smartphones can automatically “read” a QR code when a camera is directed at the QR code. 

How to scan a QR code with an iPhone iOS 11 or onwards? 

  1. Open the camera app just like you would to take a picture.
  2. Point your phone's camera at the QR code, so you see it on the screen. 
  3. Once you see the yellow lines around the code, you know the QR code is being scanned. A notification will appear shortly on top of the screen. 
  4. Tap on the notification to open the link in your web browser.

How to scan a QR code with Android? 

Android 9 or later should be able to scan QR codes natively in the camera app. To read the QR code, simply open the camera app, point it at the code and click on the pop up notification once it appears on the screen. 

There is More than One Component of a QR Code

You can spot a typical QR code from five key components:

  1. Version information - that part refers to the size (number of modules) of a QR code. The standard version is 21x21 modules. 
  2. Format information - that string shows which error correction level and which mask pattern is used for a particular QR code. Since there are four possible error correction levels (L, M, Q, and H) and eight possible mask patterns, there are 32 (4 x 8) possible format information strings.
  3. Data and error correction keys - these keys are used for restoring data in case the QR code is damaged or dirty.
  4. Required pattern:
  • The position or also called the finder patterns are the three blocks in the corners of the QR code at the top left, top right, and bottom left. The finder patterns are surrounded by areas of whitespace that are called separators. 
  • The alignment patterns are similar to finder patterns, but smaller, and are placed throughout the code. They are used in versions 2 and larger, and their positions depend on the QR code version.
  • The timing patterns are dotted lines that connect the position patterns.
  1. Quiet zone - a blank margin on all sides of a QR code that is used to buffer the code from its surroundings to prevent any adjacent images or text from being interpreted as part of the code image itself and interfering with the scanning of the code. 
QR code elements
Image source: IRJET

Different QR Code Versions

Yes, you can use QR codes for different purposes. But usually you can use QR codes in four standard and acceptable formats. Each version comes with a specific method to store data. You can store data in alphanumeric, numeric, kanji, or binary versions.

Different Types of QR codes

Although the technology of QR codes is the same for all codes, the applications of QR codes can be different. Explore different types of QR codes and find how you can apply QR codes in your industry on our Solutions page

There are two different categories of QR codes to consider when creating a QR code: static and dynamic

Static QR Codes

Static codes keep fixed information. The information delivered is encoded within the matrix of the code itself. These codes cannot be tracked in the analytics dashboard or edited as they are permanent. This is a benefit if you don't want the code to be modified. 

Static QR codes are:

✅  Encoded directly

✅  Have fixed information

✅  Available in bulk

Different types of static codes are used for the following purposes:

  • vCard QR codes are not modifiable and have the information encoded into the code itself so the information on the screen will pop-up directly and then can be shared or input automatically into the contact input fields of the user's mobile phone.
  • SMS QR codes are great for areas that have no internet connection and have a prewritten message and business phone number so when the user scans he or she may text message the business directly.
  • Email QR codes will show the email address and prewritten message directly so the user can open it on the email app of their choice to email businesses directly with editable text in the body of the email itself.
  • Plain text QR codes allow for a simple message to pop up on the screen that doesn't route to an outside landing page.

Dynamic QR Codes

Dynamic QR codes have a short redirection URL encoded into them so the information isn't encoded into itself which means they can be modified only by the person who has access to creating that specific code. The information is on the landing page that the URL will go to. This is great for updatable campaigns as the physical code never changes but it can still be modified. Dynamic codes can be tracked on the analytics dashboard and can be modified without changing the pattern of the code itself. 

Dynamic QR codes are:

✅  Trackable

✅  Shorten URLs

✅  Fixable

✅  Modifiable

✅  Agile

✅  Available in bulk*

These types of dynamic QR codes can be used for the following purposes:

  • Social media QR codes can store URLs that lead to many different social media sites in one code. They are editable in case profiles change later on. The user can choose from there which sites to follow.
  • Feedback QR codes lead to a star rating system with optional comments and user contact information. These are modifiable and customizable codes according to the creator's needs.

Codes that can be generated in either static or dynamic are:

  • URL QR codes are either modifiable (dynamic) codes that can be updated or can be generated (static) form which will be permanent.
  • Bulk QR codes can be generated by uploading a CSV file and are available for the following types*: URL, vCard, email, plain text, and SMS.

Think of QR codes as a technology that utilizes a combination of spacing through a 2D matrix barcode. Contrary to misguided perception, QR codes have more than one use. In the future, industries such as logistics, marketing, IT, healthcare, and retail will continue to have different uses for QR codes.

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