COVID-19 and the QR Code Comeback

I read a story about Coca-Cola updating some of it’s vending machines across the US, which are touchscreen-based vending machines, and they ran an over-the-air software update to convert them to be touchless by using QR codes. And it’s funny, isn’t it? So many changes have been accelerated by COVID-19 and I didn’t think that necessarily QR codes would be; but perhaps they will.

Because as well as the Coca Cola vending machines, there’s also the UK’s test and trace system. Now, you probably know the story of the app that never was, but instead there’s a web-based system that many places (like pubs) are using where you scan a QR code, which takes you to a website where you check in your details. And it’s kind of training people to use QR codes.

QR codes were roundly mocked for years; there’s famously a website called pictures of people scanning QR codes and it’s blank because the joke was, of course, that nobody really used a QR code. But the problem was never with the codes themselves; a code is fairly neutral, it’s actually a useful way to encode complex information that’s better than long text, especially URLs; a QR code is much better for a long URL.

The problem was always discovery. To use a QR code you had to have a QR code reader and most phones didn’t have one, so putting a QR code on something meant a person had to first download a QR code reader app and then scan the QR code and obviously that was never going to happen.

So the first wave of QR code usage in this country was mostly useless and the codes gained this bad reputation.

But it’s very different in other countries and notably in China. QR codes are incredibly widespread there, and that’s because as China moved very quickly to a digital economy what it didn’t have in place was contactless; it didn’t have the NFC readers in phones and it didn’t have NFC terminals in shops. And so to get people to use digital currency very quickly a QR code became an incredibly easy way to scan and send a person to a website or send a person to WeChat, so QR codes are exceptionally common there.

And they’ve been making a slow come back here as well. The QR-like Snapcodes are widely used in Snapchat to send people to a user profile or to download a Lens, QR codes are used by businesses on WhatsApp, and Apple recently announced App Clips, micro apps which can be launched by App Clip codes.

But all of these codes are platform specific; to use a Snapcode you open Snapchat, to use an App Clip code, you have to use an iPhone. Whereas a QR code works everywhere.

But as I mentioned the problem was always that nobody had a QR code reader, and now almost all modern smartphones have a QR code reader built into the default camera, but most people don’t know that. When I ask people, ‘did you know that your phone has a QR code reader?’ they say no, I never downloaded and installed one, and so you show them and then they know for the future.

So what’s happening with these cola machines and with the UK’s contact tracing is it’s training people to know that they have a QR code reader, because friends will tell friends and they’ll show other friends and soon pretty much everyone will know that your phone is capable of reading a QR code without anything extra, which makes them become useful again.

But it’s funny… they may be becoming ubiquitous just at a time when they’re no longer essential. Because phones nowadays, using machine learning, are capable of recognizing images, so if you want to take someone to a unique URL, you could just encode that into a poster image and not require the QR code at all.

Although one benefit of a code over an image is that an image can only be broadly applied to a product whereas a QR code can define a unique product; so if you associate a can of cola, you could scan it with your phone and your phone would recognize that it’s a can of Coca-Cola and trigger some kind of action, whether that’s opening a website or playing an AR experience.

But using a QR code, you can actually know that it’s this can of Coca-Cola and trigger something unique… it could be a prize giveaway, for example, or it could be just knowing that you can buy this exact item.

Anyway my point is that it’s interesting to see that the use of QR codes might be one of the changes that’s accelerated by COVID-19. And it could be that one of the unexpected outcomes of this is a second wave of QR-activated experiences.

This article is adapted from an episode of my podcast, The Tech Landscape. You can listen to it below, if the embedding works on your device.