From gim­mick to Covid es­sen­tial: how the bar was raised for QR codes

Pubs and restau­rants are re­ly­ing on the tech to curb cus­tomers’ coro­n­avirus risk, writes Matthew Field

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Technology Intelligen­ce -

They have been plas­tered across pub bars and restau­rant ta­bles seem­ingly overnight. Ev­ery­where you look, pun­ters are point­ing their smart­phone cam­eras at small black and white squares in an at­tempt to ac­cess menus and reg­is­ter their de­tails.

Th­ese QR (quick re­sponse) codes – once de­rided as a mar­ket­ing gim­mick – have made a tri­umphant come­back in post-lock­down Bri­tain as busi­nesses at­tempt to come up with ways to in­ter­act with cus­tomers at a dis­tance.

But why has this decades-old tech­nol­ogy be­come such an in­te­gral part of the UK’s re­cov­ery?

The bar code, which con­tains around 3Kb of data, can be scanned with a smart­phone cam­era and used to look up links, videos or even aug­mented re­al­ity an­i­ma­tions.

In­vented in 1994 in Ja­pan by Masahiro Hara to track ve­hi­cle parts, the codes evolved in the 2000s to be used along­side smart­phones to scan real-world ob­jects. But the codes were slow to take off. A 2012 study found only around 8pc of con­sumers in the US knew how to use them.

Their im­pact was fur­ther un­der­mined af­ter the mar­ket­ing in­dus­try be­gan adopt­ing them – of­ten with ridicu­lous re­sults.

A blog called WTF QR Codes de­tailed the most ab­surd ef­forts by com­pa­nies to shoe-horn the codes into their cam­paigns. For in­stance, in 2015, Daniel Korell scanned one of the black and white squares on the back of a Heinz bot­tle only to land on a page full of porn videos.

An ad­vert on New York’s metro in­cluded a code po­si­tioned so the only way a user might scan it would be to climb on to the elec­tri­fied tracks.

There was even the world’s largest QR code, mowed into a corn­field in Al­berta and mea­sur­ing more than 300,000 sq ft. De­spite th­ese gim­micks, Ja­son Vin­cent, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Aeguana, a com­pany that makes touch­screen ter­mi­nals for re­tail­ers, be­lieves QR codes have made a come­back. “We’re con­fi­dent this is no longer a fad,” he says.

A user can scan the code, which brings up a menu or shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence on their phone. Then they can browse and pay with­out hav­ing to touch the screen or go to a till. “You can go through the whole ex­pe­ri­ence just through a code,” he says. Most no­tice­ably, QR codes are be­ing used as part of many test and trace set-ups in pubs and restau­rants. They have even been carved into wooden ta­bles or used to re­place menus en­tirely, so a user can scan the code, bring up a menu and or­der, with­out hav­ing to in­ter­act with a waiter.

Ben Wood, an an­a­lyst at CCS In­sight, says: “There is lit­tle doubt that QR codes are hav­ing a re­nais­sance as a re­sult of the Covid-19 pan­demic. The de­sire to min­imise in­fec­tion risk is mak­ing the tech­nol­ogy a much more com­mon­place oc­cur­rence.”

Ma­jor names now us­ing the re­spon­sive tools for test and trace reg­is­tra­tion in the UK in­clude Star­bucks and Pret a Manger.

For test and trace, the ben­e­fit is that a per­son does not have to use a phys­i­cal ad­dress book, mean­ing their data is more se­cure, or han­dle a com­mu­nal pen and guest book.

While they are only just tak­ing off in the West, QR codes have al­ready started see­ing suc­cess in pay­ments in Asia. In China, the codes have been hugely pop­u­lar for years. Ten­cent, the

Chi­nese tech­nol­ogy gi­ant, made scannable QR codes a quick and easy way for cus­tomers or friends to pay or send money us­ing its pop­u­lar WeChat app. Be­tween Jan­uary and May alone, Ten­cent said its QR codes were used 140 bil­lion times in to­tal, with £1 tril­lion of QR-driven pay­ments.

Ten­cent’s main ri­val Alibaba also en­ables QR code pay­ments through its apps. “The pan­demic has ac­cel­er­ated the dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion pro­cesses within all ar­eas of so­ci­ety, and the QR code econ­omy is set to grow in tan­dem,” Ten­cent said.

Amid the coro­n­avirus cri­sis, QR codes are be­ing used in China as a way to ver­ify peo­ple trav­el­ling. Bil­lions of health codes have been ex­changed as users con­firm they have not come from a coro­n­avirus hot zone. Car­ry­ing a code from a prov­ince with a high coro­n­avirus risk can see peo­ple de­nied the right to travel or en­ter hos­pi­tal­ity venues or pub­lic trans­port.

Sim­i­lar codes have even been used in Greece for Bri­tish tourists ar­riv­ing, with the threat of fines if trav­ellers lack the right codes. It took so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies, such as Snapchat, to rein­tro­duce QR codes to mil­len­ni­als and Gen­er­a­tion Z to boost their pop­u­lar­ity in the West.

QR codes have been given a fur­ther boost as they be­come eas­ier to use. Un­til 2017, most phones re­quired a spe­cial QR code-read­ing app to scan a code and ac­cess its link. Such a bar­rier made it dif­fi­cult for many less tech­savvy users to adopt the codes.

Now, Ap­ple is said to be pre­par­ing to add quick re­sponse code-scan­ning to its Ap­ple Pay app, al­low­ing users to sim­ply scan a code and pay in­stantly us­ing their phones, sim­i­lar to how WeChat of­fers pay­ments in China.

Prask Sut­ton, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Wi5, which pro­vides pay­ment ser­vices in­clud­ing QR pay­ments, says the codes have gone from a nice add-on for ad­ver­tis­ers to some­thing peo­ple will see through­out their daily lives. And they will need to learn how to use them. “The dif­fer­ence is now there is a huge im­pe­tus to use them,” he says. “‘Scan this QR code for more in­for­ma­tion’ was a nice-to-have. Now, they are in­te­gral to or­der­ing a cof­fee.”

The Hard Rock Cafe is among the venues adopt­ing QR codes to of­fer dig­i­tal menus

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