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What are QR codes and how do they work?

Today, QR codes have become an integral part of our daily lives. Chances are, you have used one to get an extra discount, order lunch at the restaurant, or for free Wi-Fi access in between your holiday flights. You might know how to scan a QR code, but how do they work? Read on and learn more about the nature of a QR code.

What are QR codes and how do they work?

What is a QR code?

QR codes, or quick response codes, are graphical two-dimensional barcodes, usually presented in a square-shaped grid. They are easily read by commonly used digital and mobile devices. QR codes are a gateway to a wide array of information, like websites, payment links, personal contact information, and other emerging data formats. These wizardly inventions were created by a Toyota subsidiary company – Denso Wave, in Japan in 1994. As the pioneers of lean manufacturing, Toyota found a solution to fight their assembly line bottlenecks by creating QR codes that enabled high-speed scanning and tracking of various components. After digitalization took over the world and smart devices became second nature, QR code scanning found a slot in our everyday lives.

How do QR codes work?

Like all barcodes, QR codes have a unique graphical pattern usually decoded by a scanning device, laser reader, or smartphone. When the QR code is scanned, the information is translated into human-readable data, like images, texts, or audio files, in a matter of seconds.

The decoding process is pretty simple and consists of a few steps:

  1. Scanning: A smartphone camera or a designated laser scanner captures the QR code image. Immediately, the QR code image patterns and modules are analyzed and identified.
  2. Image processing: The scanned image is refined in order to extract information from the black-and-white patterns in the QR code.
  3. Decoding and error correction: Then the QR code scanner or smartphone QR code scanning software applies error correction algorithms to fix the distortions and any damaged parts of the code. Finally the encoded information is extracted from the binary data.
  4. Action: Once all the information is decoded, QR codes perform designated actions depending on the data stored in that code. For example, it can redirect users to various websites, initiate payments, or perform other digital actions.

Anatomy of a QR code

Every quick response code has a unique pattern, but the general anatomy is always the same. It consists of several key components that work together in storing the desired information. Knowing these key components will help anyone understand how QR codes work. The main QR code elements may include:

Anatomy of QR code
  1. Positioning patterns: These large square patterns are located in three corners of the QR code. The small internal squares are designed as reference points for QR code readers or smartphone cameras. These unique patterns assist the reader in identifying the size, orientation, and position of the QR code.
  2. Timing patterns: Timing patterns are defined by vertical and horizontal lines of alternating black and white modules that design a unique grid within the QR code. These timing patterns help to establish the size and, more importantly, the alignment of individual models within the code area. They are crucial because QR code readers rely on these timing patterns to correctly read and interpret given data.
  3. Alignment patterns: In most cases, alignment patterns are small square patterns in the QR code. Their placement is important because they assist in error correction and ensure accurate QR code scanning, even when scanned from various angles. Alignment patterns are placed in a diagonal line from the top-left positioning pattern and lean toward the center of the code.
  4. Format information: Format information is a designated area within the QR code. These areas are responsible for storing data related to the format of the QR code itself. Code readers and smartphones utilize this information in the decoding process to decode the code accurately.
  5. Version information: Version information indicates the QR code’s size and data capacity, which can influence the code’s readability. To be more precise, version information specifies the number of columns and rows in the code grid.

Types of QR codes

Not only do QR codes benefit the everyday user, but they can be valuable tools for marketers if used correctly. They can be created by a QR code generator in a matter of seconds. Various industries use them for multiple purposes, like brand monitoring, time tracking, object recognition, location monitoring, and other analytical purposes. Universally, QR codes are divided into two types – static and dynamic.

Static QR codes

Once generated, static QR codes can store data directly into their pattern, meaning they cannot be modified. Users can’t change the information in the static QR code. So any misstep in the process will require creating a new QR code. Of course, static QR codes carry one huge benefit – they don’t expire, which makes them ideal for fixed information, like an ID number, access codes, or everyday Wi-Fi passwords.

Dynamic QR codes

Unlike static QR codes, dynamic QR codes are more advanced and diverse in data storage. When static ones lock the data in the code pattern, dynamic QR code software stores data in the short URLs landing page. This carries several advantages, like information can be changed or modified as often as needed. They also allow a wider range of media types, including audio and video files. Finally, dynamic QR codes offer the ability to gather scanning metrics, such as time, location, and devices used for scanning. This allows marketers to make adjustments to the data if needed.

Dynamic QR codes carry a few other significant advantages:

  • Password protection
  • Retargeting
  • Expiry date setting
  • Email notifications
  • Software integration

QR code styles

Today, many shapes and styles of QR codes can be generated online, but they all carry the same purpose. However, these are the most commonly used styles.

  1. QR code: The original version we all have seen or scanned. The main attributes are the three finder patterns in the corners of the whole graphical structure.original QR code
  2. Aztec QR code: Similar to the original style of the QR code, the Aztec code contains only one finder pattern in the center of the code.Aztec QR code
  3. Maxi QR code: Maxi codes are used by the US postal service. Just like an Aztec code, the finder pattern is located in the middle of the code, but instead of squares, a honeycomb pattern is used in the design.Maxi QR code
  4. PDF417 QR code: Created in the early nineties, even before the first and original QR code. This code is a QR code and barcode mashup with a distinctive rectangular shape.PDF417 QR code
  5. Semacode: The Semacode is a data matrix that resembles any other QR code, but it has no recognizable finder patterns.Semacode

Common QR code use cases

It’s hard to imagine a digital world without QR codes. Especially when there are numerous QR code generators that offer free QR codes. Today, everyone can generate a QR code for a specific occasion. Let’s explore different QR code types and use cases.

  • URL QR codes: The main objective of a URL QR code is to drive traffic to websites. Consumers scan them with their smartphones and access desired web pages in the blink of an eye. Due to their simplicity, marketers and businesses use them for advertising.
  • Text QR codes: Originally, text QR codes stored texted information, such as instructions, contact details, or messages. They have recently become an undistinguishable part of user manuals or even online COVID Certificates.
  • Social media QR codes: They’re a valuable tool for social media influencers and brands to boost follower numbers and content subscribers. Besides storing multiple social links, they carry a basic but necessary functionality. When scanned, users are redirected to a corresponding social media platform. Then, various actions are enabled, like post sharing or page following.
  • SMS QR codes: SMS QR codes are a convenient way to send pre-filled messages to targeted phone numbers. They are widely used for various inquiries and subscription requests. Some SMS QR code generators even suggest self-generated messages along with the QR code.
  • Email QR codes: Email QR codes simplify reaching clients for businesses and marketers. Consumers can scan them and leave real-time feedback, reviews or contact customer support service. Increasingly more FMCG businesses adopt email QR codes for packaged goods.
  • Wi-Fi QR codes: These QR codes are often used by cafes, hotels, and airports. They have eliminated the need to search for Wi-Fi and manually enter the network name (SSID) and network security key. Users can scan them and join the network immediately.
  • QR codes for mobile applications: App stores and developers use mobile application QR codes to drive app downloads quite effectively. It’s an effective way to eliminate the search barrier for users since multiple search results can confuse users while shopping in an app store. Furthermore, mobile app QR codes are the dynamic type most of the time. They provide a fair amount of valuable data for companies. Data, like the number of scans or location metrics, can help companies ramp up the efficiency of their product campaigns.
  • QR codes for business cards: Physical business cards might be a thing of the past. vCard QR code cards are replacing them fast, even in more conservative markets. This digital file format makes networking so much easier. People flash QR codes on their phones, and the job is done. Moreover, the contact details can be updated constantly.

Are QR codes safe?

Yes, QR codes are safe by nature. However, since their worldwide popularity has grown exponentially, they have become an attractive medium for hackers and fraudsters. QR codes downloaded from shady sources or fake websites can take you to phishing or malicious websites.

It’s essential to know the potential risks that QR codes could carry. Here are some considerations:

  1. Unauthorized access: URL QR codes that link to login pages, where users are obligated to enter their personal information, could be used for phishing attacks. Entering sensitive data could open unauthorized access to one’s accounts or steal sensitive information. It is advisable to check the source before entering any personal data.
  2. Fake QR codes: Fake QR codes are placed in public places, on product packaging, or outdoor advertising sites. They are hard to distinguish because they mimic legitimate ones perfectly.
  3. QR stickers: These QR codes are placed on various surfaces in public places. In most cases they redirect users to harmful websites and enable unwanted downloads.
  4. Free Wi-Fi network: In most cases, these QR codes give access to unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Users should verify the legitimacy of the network before connecting their devices.

Are QR codes hackable?

The answer is no, they cannot be hacked themselves, but security issues could arise in the QR code’s destination, the where they take the user. In other words, hackers can set up a malicious QR code that redirects users to malicious websites, obtain valuable information, like login details, or track the device’s geolocation, especially when using dynamic QR codes. These threats can be minimized by simply avoiding scanning QR codes from a suspicious source.

How can you protect yourself from a malicious QR code?

It’s hard to tell when you will stumble upon a malicious QR code, but staying safe is better than being sorry. Now, most online security companies offer QR scanners equipped with malware detection software that can check for malicious URLs. These QR code scanners will inform you about the potential dangers, such as:

  • Malicious websites
  • Phishing scams
  • Text message scams
  • Dangerous links
  • Forced app downloads

QR codes are here to stay

Technological advancement shows no signs of slowing down. Digitized supermarkets, gamification, and the contactless post-pandemic experience drive quick response code adoption in every marketable industry. Not only do QR codes simplify everyday hassles for the end consumer, but they will offer numerous benefits to marketers as well. Tracking customer engagement and various campaign effectiveness is just the beginning. Even from nature’s standpoint, QR codes can contribute to cutting down carbon emissions by reducing the need for printed materials. Finally, the increasing adoption of digital devices and smartphones will naturally boost the demand for QR codes across the globe.


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