QR codes aren’t new. In fact, they’ve been around for more than 25 years. But this year, they seem to be everywhere: on restaurant patio tables to access online menus, on doors to help with contact tracing, and in businesses for contactless payment. 

Here’s how QR codes work, and why the COVID-19 pandemic set the stage for widespread use of this technology.

A QR code, or “quick response code,” is the next generation of the barcode. It encodes information horizontally and vertically, making it capable of containing a lot more information. It can also be read quickly, and set off certain actions, such as redirecting the user to a website. 

Richard Hyatt, co-founder and CEO of Toronto-based startup Candr, said its QR codes come in varying complexities. Many include redundancies, meaning the same information is encoded into the image more than once, so that if the QR code is partially damaged, it can still be scanned.

While smartphone users initially needed a third-party app to scan the codes, many Android and iPhone smartphones can now scan the codes via built-in camera apps. If your smartphone’s camera app doesn’t have this capability, there are many third-party QR scanning apps that can be downloaded to perform the function.

Why are QR codes having a moment right now?

Because of their versatility, QR codes are useful for a number of functions related to slowing the spread of COVID-19, said Konesh Thurairasah, co-founder and COO of Safe Check-IN, a tool to help businesses comply with contact tracing, among other things. Not only can they direct a client to a menu or a contact tracing form, they can help business owners track how many people are in their store to avoid breaking pandemic restrictions.

When Thurairasah and his co-founder decided to make a contactless option for contact tracing and more, QR codes immediately popped into their heads, because of their versatility and also their cost-effectiveness, he said. Since launching their Milton, Ont.-based startup around three months ago, interest has grown. Sign-ups doubled last month over the previous month and users are showing interest in an increasing array of features, Thurairasah said.

Kevin Derbyshire, co-founder and president of Toronto-based startup Candr, said its digital service was being developed to help companies connect with customers before COVID-19 using QR codes. Then, in the early days of the pandemic, a friend in the restaurant industry mentioned that they were collecting contact tracing details using pen and paper.

Derbyshire and Hyatt thought there must be a better way — and immediately thought of using Candr’s QR codes to improve the contact tracing process. It’s more hygienic and it’s more secure — nobody can access other people’s contact information. It also has the ability add new functionalities — for example, clients can take a COVID-19 symptom questionnaire, view a restaurant’s menu, and browse promotions, all through one QR code. The process also eliminates errors caused by misheard names or messy handwriting.

Since the service launched in May, Derbyshire said they have had a “dramatic rise” in sign-ups, in Canada and outside the country. Many clients are restaurants, he said.

What are they being used for?

You’ll find QR codes taped to the tables at your favourite restaurants — a contactless way to read the menu. QR codes are also being used at banks and other institutions to create a digital lineup. Recently, Toronto company Scarboro Music put QR codes up on its display window so customers could virtually shop while the store is closed due to the current COVID-19 lockdown.

Companies are using them more often now for contactless payment, even digital payment giant PayPal. In November, Calgary-based payment company Helcim launched QR codes for restaurants and other small businesses.

Thurairasah said some Safe Check-IN clients use QR codes to schedule and check-in visitors at care homes or hotels. He predicts QR code usage will continue to rise in 2021 as businesses look for easier ways to comply with pandemic restrictions.

Hyatt agreed. “The QR code’s here to stay.”

Source: Toronto Star