An Interview With The Inventor Of The QR Code

After posting news and comment on QR Codes for the last seven years it was really interesting for me to sit down and interview the inventor Masahiro Hara. He was making a brief stop in London after being presented with the “Popular Prize” at the European Inventor Award 2014 ceremony in Berlin two days previously.

We met over a pot of tea and thanks to his colleague Shingo Nii who acted as interpreter had a most enjoyable couple of hours discussing QR Codes and technology in general. Also present from Toyota was Tim Thompson and Francois Beau who kindly organized the meeting.

Here is a summary of the questions and my interpretation of the answers given by Masahiro.

When you invented the QR Code what problem were you trying to solve and what specific application did you have in mind?

Toyota invented “Kanban” a scheduling system for lean and just-in-time (JIT) production. The system controlled the logistical chain in a production environment and made use of linear barcodes. It became apparent to Toyota that the low number of bytes of information available in a linear barcode was constraining the development of Kanban. Masahiro Hara and his team were given the responsibility to develop a robust high capacity barcode for the manufacturing industry and after much work the result was a two-dimensional barcode, the QR Code.

Who decided that DENSO WAVE would not exercise patent rights to the QR Code and why?

One of the biggest benefits of the QR Code are the low printed costs on paper. To take advantage of this Masahiro thought Toyota should not exercise the patent rights and should distribute it for free without any limitations. He explained this to his top management and let them make the final decision. He also judged that businesswise it was a lot better to expand the use of QR Codes as quickly as possible and work on developing and selling special readers to keep the business growing in the future.

When did you first realize that QR Codes could be used for marketing?

The QR Code was introduced for the KANABAN system for the Toyota Group of companies at the beginning of 1996. Later in the year the QR Code was adopted by the Japanese stationary industry for ordering stationary supplies and stock control. By 2002 Japan had a highly developed 3G network and telecoms companies like NTTDoCoMo and KDDI were incorporating QR Code readers into their handsets. It was at this stage that the use of QR Codes for marketing purposes started its spectacular growth.

What in your view is the most effective use of QR Codes in advertising/marketing?

Masahiro surprised me by saying that he thought the most effective use of QR Codes in advertising/marketing is to display them in TV commercials, hence giving the viewer the option to find out more details of specific products.

What scanning app do you have on your phone and how often do you use it?

Masahiro said he uses DENSO WAVE’s own iPhone App “QRdeCODE” approximately 20 times/week. As a Samsung S4 user myself there then followed a discussion as to why the QRdeCODE app is not available for Android devices! It would appear that not having QRdeCODE for Android or Windows was a straight forward commercial decision. It’s not as if the Android market is crying out for a new QR Code scanning app given that there are over a hundred already available.

Do you approve of designer QR Codes?

QR Code on Masahiro Hara's business cardMasahiro said he did and he thought they were a really good idea. Indeed he has a colorful QR Code embedded with a head and shoulders shot of himself on his business card.

What technology do you think will replace QR Codes and when do you think this will happen?

This produced a really interesting discussion and it became clear that it is really two questions. What will replace QR Codes for consumers as a marketing tool and what will replace QR Codes in the manufacturing, warehousing, medical etc. sectors. Masahiro thought that in five years time the commercial sector may be using some form of “Color Code” which can be printed with more data and in less space. As far as consumers are concerned we touched on NFC and image (visual) recognition but neither of us could see clearly the game changing advantages or the framework in which these technologies may operate in marketing.

We then moved on to topics such as Google Glass and brain computer interaction and it became quite clear that Masahiro Hara has not stopped thinking about enabling technologies.

Thanks again to Francois Beau of Toyota Tsusho ID Systems for the invitation and arrangement of such an interesting afternoon.

Roger Smolski and Masahiro Hara share their thoughts on barcode symbology and human computer interaction

The Most Widely Used Mobile Barcode Reader In The World

In Japan i-nigma is the de facto standard QR Code reader having been embedded in over 180 million handsets. Recently I had the opportunity to interview Mendy Mendelsohn, CEO of 3GVision the company responsible for this achievement. Here is the interview in full:

Mendy Mendelsohn CEO 3GvisionRS: Mendy thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Let’s start with something about 3GVision and how you got involved?

MM: Yossi Lev (our CTO) and I founded 3GVision in 2000. Our initial vision was to provide image recognition technologies for the then-nascent mobile cameraphones. We have developed several such technologies – e.g. document scanning, OCR, face recognition, motion tracking, and of course barcode decoding – all in-house, tailored to the camera quality, CPU and memory limitations of cameraphones. At the IT bubble burst, it was clear that Japan was the only market where 3G and cameraphones were actually about to happen, so we concentrated our efforts there. The first fully blown commercial launch of our barcode decoder was in 2002, and since then we have enjoyed an overwhelming leadership in the Japanese market together with our first and best partner, MEDIASEEK. Since 2006 we have been offering an end-to-end barcode management platform, better known as i-nigma.

RS: How does i-nigma fit into the mix?

MM: Our i-nigma offering includes several products. The i-nigma barcode management platform / dashboard, that allow customers to create, manage, track and provide extensive reporting of mobile barcode services. The i-nigma barcode reader application supported on more than 500 handset models, that our customers make freely available to their end users through the download site. And the i-nigma SDK, available for all mobile platforms, allowing mobile developers to easily add the barcode scanning feature to their custom-made applications.

RS: When you say it is free for your customer’s end users the i-nigma reader is actually free for everyone isn’t it?

MM: i-nigma is free for the end users, but it is not free for commercial use. So while end users may download and use i-nigma freely, enterprises need to agree with us on terms that will allow them to refer their customers to i-nigma.

RS: Can you give us some idea of the i-nigma user base in Japan and throughout the world? Presumably you have seen a large increase in downloads throughout 2010 as QR Codes come to the West?

MM: In Japan, the vast majority of handsets hit the market with an embedded barcode reader. Out of those, some 80-85% are based on i-nigma technology. The total number of Japanese handsets that embedded our technology is well above 180 million. Outside Japan, more than 15 million handsets have either pre-installed or downloaded our readers. On the usage side, we are indeed seeing a huge increase. Comparing October to November, for example, we see a 25% increase in hits worldwide, 25% increase in the States, 60% increase in Germany, and 100% increase in France and in Canada. Comparing November to July, we see a 150% increase worldwide. The outlook is also bright, as we experience a similarly significant increase in business requests.

RS: You mentioned the i-nigma SDK, can you give us some examples of the kind of applications that have been developed?

MM: Sure. A fast-food chain in Spain uses an i-nigma based application to redeem coupons in their 120 restaurants. A large retailer uses another i-nigma based application to scan and track prices at competitors’ shops. A third customer uses an i-nigma based application to credit sales personnel and simultaneously manage their perfume stock at a drugstore chain.

RS: As interest in QR Codes develops outside Asia a number of QR Code management systems seem to have appeared. What’s the unique selling point for i-nigma dashboard?

MM: Field tested by top operators, publishers, brands and service providers. Intuitive user experience and detailed reporting, including by number of unique users. Longest track record in mobile barcode services. Stable management and staff committed to successful long-term relationships.

RS: It is interesting that you should say “including unique users”. Does this mean you have to ID each individual i-nigma download and recover the ID when a scan is performed? How do you actually do that? Does every i-nigma download have an ID or only the ones for commercial use?

MM: Well, your readership did express particular interest in this point… Each i-nigma based reader has its own unique ID, which is reported to our servers on every scan. We never collect, let alone store, any personal data about the user, as does some of our competition. And we use these IDs in our reports only to distinguish them from each other, never on individual basis.

RS: Yes it is true, I get a lot of email on reader and privacy issues! So let’s get this straight. No personal information is collected when a user downloads i-nigma. Each time a user scans a code it is reported to your servers. Just to be clear, does this mean that if for example a QR Code containing a URL is scanned with i-nigma that there are two http requests, one to the URL and one to your servers?

MM: This is pretty much equivalent to what we’re doing, we just do this so the user doesn’t suffer from extra wait or traffic charges.

RS: So what information is sent to your servers? As you said the i-nigma unique ID but what else? Details of the other http request?

MM: Exactly: UID, URL or barcode; date & time, IP number, phone model. Basically what is needed for comprehensive aggregate reporting without compromising the individual’s privacy.

RS: OK one last question on the privacy issue. Let’s say one of your commercial client’s runs a campaign with a QR Code that resolves to a landing page on their website with a special offer. Let’s also say that the special offer requires some form of registration like email address and name. Is your client able to associate this information with the i-nigma unique ID? If commercial clients can do this then presumably it would be possible for them, over a period of time, to determine a specific individual’s scanning behavior pattern?

MM: I’m not sure I understand the problem here. In your example, the end-user practically logs in to the client’s site, so the client can easily determine the individual’s behavior in the site – regardless of whether the end-user scanned a mobile barcode to get there. In any event, just to clarify – 3GVision’s commitment is to never provide a client with the end-user’s private data – scanning behavior included.

RS: Thank you that is very interesting. Before I ask you about the future of the technology I have an observation on which I would like to hear your comments. I know that your company is active in attending conferences and trade shows but it appears to me that you are conspicuously inactive on the social networks. You have all that great data about world wide activity levels and your commercial client experiences will have given you insight into all the best practices. It’s a good story so why aren’t you leveraging the social networks to build the 3GVision brand?

MM: It would be difficult to dispute your observation – and thank you for offering your stage to improve on this point… I dare say 3GVision and especially i-nigma have come a long way since being “the industry’s best kept secret”, as a dear friend of ours fondly put it. Still, the blanket is never wide enough and we must constantly manage our priorities. Where the options are quality service VS extra online boasting, we prefer the former. I believe this is the most important thing in the long run.

RS: This is where I ask you to make a few predictions based on your experience! How do you see 2d barcode technology and its use developing in the West in the near and long term and what evolving technology might replace them?

MM: Needless to say that the market seems as bullish as it ever was. With smartphones becoming ubiquitous and the huge growth in mobile data usage, all the stars are aligned for rapid acceptance of barcode based services. As to potentially disruptive technologies such as RFID and image recognition, I see them mostly as complementary rather than competitive to barcodes.

RS: Thank you Mendy for the interview, it was very interesting and I am sure 2d-code readers will find it interesting too.

MM: Thank you for your great blog, Roger. You managed to create a first class source of objective reporting and discussion, which is a joy to follow. I’d like to wish you and your readership a fabulous 2011 from all of us at 3GVision.

Denso Wave and JMango Invest in the Future of QR Codes

When I first heard news that Denso Wave had partnered with JMango my initial reaction was surprise. After all Denso Wave had shown no interest in the use of QR Codes for mobile marketing purposes since they invented them in 1994. So what was it that prompted them to get interested now and why? I asked Ilan Oosting, CEO of JMango if he would shed some more light on the new partnership and he kindly agreed. A transcript of the interview follows:

IIan, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Before we move on to your new partnership with Denso Wave could you please tell us a little about your own personal background and the formation of JMango?

On my side, I had been working in the telco industry for around 7 years, before starting up my own IVR company. By chance, we stumbled upon the JMango app development platform while pitching the IVR business to Deloitte in March 2008. Once we had finished our pitch, they were very polite and said thanks for coming in, now do you want to see this? At this point they introduced Duc Ngo, who then gave me a live demonstration of the JMango platform.

That night, I went back to the shareholders and partners and told them that we were in the wrong business! A few weeks later, we brought the platform and Duc. Since then, we have been working day on night on the platform and its commercialization.

What exactly does JMango do and can you give a recent example of a successful project?

JMango is basically a rapid mobile application development and deployment platform. It allows virtually anyone to create powerful mobile applications that can be deployed to virtually any phone.

We are only a small company, but have a pretty unique platform in its speed and scope. The basic model for us is one of regional based licensing and we now have a presence in Australia/NZ, Brazil, the BENELUX and Philippines. In the short time we have been operating, we have launched several mobile applications for racing teams, football clubs, mobile research, trivia games and events.

How did you become interested in QR Codes?

Probably the most recent event based projects is really where the interest in QR Codes began. We received a brief for a fully integrated mobile ticketing system, which we created using QR Codes as the data carrier, essentially people would open the application, purchase the tickets on the mobile and be sent a unique QR Code. We then built the point of sales system and needed the best quality scanners to cope with the load of traffic at the entrance to this event. We played with all sorts of scanners and had quite a few problems with them. As a result, we fell back to Denso purely for the fact that as the inventor of the 2D Code, they would surely have the best scanners for our purpose. This was really our first introduction to Denso.

From there we worked with Denso on delivering a mobile QR Code project for a Retail Expo here. Post that we started looking at the capabilities of both companies and it just seemed a natural fit, particularly as the global adoption of QR Codes for things other than logistics had begun to increase.

Was it your idea to visit Denso Wave Headquarters in Japan and what did you hope to gain from the visit?

It wasn’t our idea initially… we had several meetings with Denso International Australia who introduced us to Denso Wave’s Chief Engineer, Shibata-san. In conjunction with the guys from Denso International Australia, we presented our system, what it did and how it could work with the next generation of QR Codes. He saw the opportunity for both parties and was the one to actually champion our visit to Denso headquarters.

Once there, Duc spent several days with the Denso Wave team exploring all of the technical side of mobile and QR Codes, including barriers of multiple handsets, cameras and operating systems.
In terms of our expectations from the trip, it was a great outcome. We are now working together on developing new technologies in this space that will hopefully aid in making QR Codes more popular around the globe as well as working side by side with them, on the next generation QR Code technology, which is very exciting.

That is one of the aspects of your partnership that I find interesting. Why do you think that Denso Wave, who have shown no interest in the use of QR Codes for mobile marketing purposes since they invented them in 1994, are taking an interest now?

Well firstly, it’s not really my place to publicly comment on the policies of our partners, but I think there also needs a little bit of context given here. Denso as a company is primarily an OEM. The general model for OEMs is around receiving a brief from the client and then going away to build/manufacturer to that brief.

Further to this, the 2D QR Code, was originally set up for logistics. When they first released the code, I think marketing and mobile was the last thing on their mind. That said, now that the interest levels are there, the code is becoming more mainstream and the enquiries are starting to come in.

Do you think that Denso Wave regret, or are having second thoughts on declaring QR Codes ‘open’ and choosing not to exercise their patent rights?

Again, it’s not really my place to comment on the thoughts or strategies of partners, but I doubt there is any regret from their side. It’s certainly not something we have discussed. With most technologies, there needs to be a fair amount of leeway given to allow take up. And to be fair, it is only in recent years that we have seen the mainstream interest in the QR Code.

If you think about it another way, if they had chosen to exercise their patent rights, then we might not even be having this conversation!

You say that you are working with Denso Wave on developing new technologies and the next generation QR Code technology, are you able to give us a hint of what these might be?

There is some really exciting stuff happening with some of these new technologies. You would have already seen some of the different QR Codes involving colors and branding; which we believe will only enhance the appeal of using the code for those brands looking for a more customized solution. In addition to this, there is a lot of work going into density and size variables as well as intelligent QR Codes that move away from the standard square shape and into a more user friendly and versatile code.

We are also working on expanding the key areas for mobile and the QR Code. At the moment, the main focus is on print to mobile, however there is a much wider play here with the development of the mobile ecosystem. And of course there are a couple of proprietary initiatives that I can’t comment on, but expect some announcements shortly. Further to all of this, we are actually trying to garner feedback from those looking to use the QR Code in the future. This feedback will then go back into the labs in Japan and help shape the development roadmap. This online form will be available shortly and we will be sure to let you know.

Thank you IIan for taking the time to shed some light on your partnership with Denso Wave and good luck for the future.