You’ve certainly seen QR codes around – they’re those funky square-shaped icons that appear on advertisements, products, catalogs and even business cards. But unless you’ve used one before, you might not even know what they are. Let’s change that!

What is a QR code?

First off, a QR code consists of black squares arranged in a square grid on a white background, which can be scanned quickly by a camera. They look like this:

The full name is “Quick Response Code” (QR Code). The “quick response” part refers to the fact that your device can instantly understand the code simply by scanning it with a camera.

If this concept is new to you, just think about those long UPC barcodes you see at the grocery store. We use QR codes the same way we use barcodes – but QR codes are more advanced. Barcodes only go from left to right (1 dimension), while QR codes are squared (2 dimensions). This allows them to store much more information.

In other words, barcodes are like vinyl records, while QR codes are like CDs; they both play music, but one can hold more songs and is faster than the other.

What are QR codes used for?

Although barcodes are still commonly used in grocery stores, these days QR codes have replaced them in most other settings – however, they’re best known for helping people quickly get to websites using their phone camera.

A common example of this is a QR code in an advertisement, which allows you to get more information simply by scanning the QR code with your phone’s camera:

There are a ton of uses – from informing you about a product or event to soliciting donations for charity, encouraging voter registration and more.

How do QR codes work?

So, how do they actually work? Well, that’s a bit complicated – but it comes down to the black and white patterns.

When you point your camera at a QR code, your smart phone analyzes the patterns of white and black, which are completely unique to that specific QR code. Then your phone generates a URL and takes you straight to the website (after you confirm).

The code itself is comprised of 6 special types of patterns – you’ll notice that there are some dots, but also some bigger squares and consistent shapes. These patterns help your camera understand the image better, and each has its own function.

The system works so well because even one tiny difference in a QR code can create a completely different result. In fact, there are more possible QR codes than there are atoms in the universe!

Who made these things (and why)?

QR codes were invented back in 1994 by the Japanese company Denso Wave, a subsidiary of Toyota. Its initial purpose was to track vehicles during manufacturing. However, like many technologies, it found new life as broader consumer uses were discovered.

They became popular over time and remain very popular. A recent estimate suggested there were 1.3 billion mobile QR code coupons redeemed last year… and it’s expected to rise to 5.3 billion by 2022!

Now let’s have some fun…

The original inventors still hold the patent on QR codes, but they’ve granted free license to it, which helped them become universally popular.

And guess what? You can even create your own QR code! There are many sites that let you do it, like this one:

Now try it yourself! If you have a smartphone, open your camera, point it at this image and see what pops up. (Don’t worry, you won’t be going far):