Innovation

2018: Finally the year of QR Codes?

By Oliver Smith 7 December 2017
Image: VCG/VCG via Getty Images.
Summary

The black squiggles are coming.

QR codes are dumb.

That’s the natural reaction to these industrial-looking digital squiggles which the tech and media sectors desperately tried to make into ‘a thing’ around 2012, but were largely ignored.

Now in 2018 they could be about to make an explosive comeback, backed by the likes of Apple, Facebook, Pinterest and an army of new developers.

But first, where did these black and white blobs go so wrong?

Killing codes

On paper, QR codes made a load of sense.

You can use them to quickly pay for stuff, open links to websites, even snag contact info, just by pointing your smartphone, no exchanging contact details or having to ‘add’ someone first.

But today the codes have become something of a joke.

Maybe it was QR codes on the sides of buses (pretty hard to scan), motorway billboards (definitely encouraging safe driving), or on athletes bums (don’t even ask), but Joe Public decided the whole thing was an absurd marketing gimmick and promptly forgot about it.

Or did they…

A job's fair in China, where all the adverts are entirely QR codes. Image: VCG/VCG via Getty Images.

The country of QR

In western countries QR codes wallow in seclusion, but in Asia the codes are living a very different life.

In Japan (where the codes were first invented for the country’s automotive industry in 1994) and China, QR codes have almost become a second language.

Trying to connect to public wifi? Scan a QR code. Adding a WeChat friend in real life, scan their code (similar to Snapchat’s Snapcodes). Paying in a shop? Scan their QR code to send the money.

Codes are even popping up on bottles of wine to prove their provenance, or on food packaging as a way of packing even more nutritional information onto small packages.

They are the hyperlinks and bookmarks of the real world, and now they could be about to make a global comeback.

Yoyo Wallet is probably Europe's most popular QR code payments app.

QR comeback

2018 looks poised to see QR codes at least attempting to come back into mainstream view.

Facebook is testing ways of letting you log in by scanning a code, Pinterest wants shops to start putting codes on their trinkets which let you Pin them in its app, and Amazon recently used codes at its pop-up Xmas shop to link physical goods to its online store.

One of the biggest changes to the QR code landscape could be Apple’s quiet addition of QR code support to its built-in camera app, meaning any code is now scannable by any iPhone.

Developers are jumping on the rising tide of digital barcodes for some innovations of their own.

Guildford-based Netclearance designed a QR code system to power Danske Bank’s MobilePay app – Denmark’s 2nd most popular app, now used by 3.7m Danes to pay on the high street.

In Britain Stevan Bajic, is the founder and CEO of Manigo, an upcoming app that blends payments with chat, a lot like China’s WeChat, and is similarly embracing QR codes for many of its payment features.

“The one thing no one else has is QR codes, why is no one using QR codes? Honestly, I’m startled it never took off,” Bajic told The Memo.

“Without having your number, having to ‘connect’ or be friends, I can pay you, I can pay a store, it’s frictionless and ephemeral, this is how it should be.”

And Yoyo Wallet is one of Europe’s fastest-growing mobile wallets powered by, you guessed it, QR codes.

Image: Getty/saquizeta.

Decoded

In a world of contactless NFC computer chips and Bluetooth sensors, it might seem odd to be predicting the comeback of what are essentially 2D barcodes.

But here’s the thing.

If these dumb codes do take off in 2018 – and that’s a big if – really we’ll just be realising what Asia has known since the mid-1990s, when they whipped them off cars and started placing these hyperlinks and bookmarks in the real world.

Time to start playing catch up.