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QR code

noun [countable]

a code consisting of a pattern of black and white squares which can be read by a mobile phone, computer, etc., and is used as a label to provide further information about something

'The poster is based around a QR code, a form of barcode that can hold much more data than the traditional version, including links to videos and websites.'

The Guardian 6th February 2012

If you've kept your eyes open as you've walked the city streets and shops recently, then the chances are that over the past few months you'll have caught sight of a label or sign which includes a curious square pattern made up of dozens of little black and white squares. If you've not seen one yet, then it's only a matter of time before you do, because these little images seem to be rapidly taking over the planet. What I'm talking about here are QR codes, a new means of encoding access to information which is now popping up all over the place.

technically referred to as a matrix code or two-dimensional bar code, a QR code has two main advantages over a conventional bar code

A QR code or Quick Response code, is a two dimensional version of the concept of a bar code (a set of printed lines on a product's label, scanned by a computer for information about price, etc). Technically referred to as a matrix code or two-dimensional bar code, a QR code has two main advantages over a conventional bar code (aka a linear or one-dimensional bar code). First, it can store (and digitally represent) much more data, including Internet links, geographical coordinates, and text. Second, it does not need to be interpreted by a chunky, hand-held scanner or other dedicated device. Instead, QR codes can be quickly scanned by appropriately-enabled mobile phones which have a QR code reader. Readers are freely available and quick to download as mobile phone apps, and some of the latest phone models and hand-held gaming devices even come with QR code readers pre-installed.

The flexibility and ease of use of QR codes lend them to a wide range of practical applications. They can appear on signs, posters, public transport, packaging, magazines, business cards, or any medium where there is the capacity and need to display information about a product or service. Anyone with a correctly-equipped mobile phone can then simply point their phone's camera at the QR code, scan the image and thereby get access to contact information, advertising, promotions, URLs, or any other relevant text which would be difficult or impossible to include within the confines of a simple advertisement.

QR codes are usually black and white, but sometimes include other colours or promotional text and logos. Websites such as Kaywa™ give access to QR code readers and also software for users to generate and print their own QR codes for others to scan and use.

Background – QR code

The concept of a QR code was created in 1994 by Japanese company Denso Wave, a subsidiary of the car manufacturer Toyota. The codes were created to track vehicles during the manufacturing process, and designed so that their contents could be decoded at very high speed, hence the choice of the words 'Quick Response'.

Since about 2009, QR codes have become commonplace in Japan, printed on transport and entertainment tickets, advertising, product packaging, parcel tracking, etc; most Japanese mobile phones are correspondingly able to recognize them. Now rapidly infiltrating the USA and Europe, QR codes form an integral part of what is sometimes described as mobile tagging, the process of providing data on mobile devices through the use of two-dimensional bar codes. Alternative terms for QR code include 2D barcode, graphical tag, jag tag, and black and white square.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 2nd April 2012.

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