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?
Masahiro 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.