December 7, 2023

Roy Healy’s first tattoo wasn’t the kind people usually regret, like the name of a future ex or a quote in a language you can’t read. Still, he was nervous. He had asked the artist to write a QR code on the inside of his wrist pointing to a website he owned and he wasn’t sure if it would scan.

During a two-hour session in September 2019, he prepared to accept the tattoo “as a statement of the hubris of trying to mix technology and bio”.

To his pleasant surprise, however, the code worked. Now, Mr Healy, a 33 year old software engineer based in Cork, Ireland, can change the link he points – his personal blog, the rules of a card game, his LinkedIn profile – as he sees fit.

Such body art is “not particularly common,” wrote Brian Greenberg, a 48-year-old Linux system administrator whose own QR code tattoo was pointed at a GIF of the word “soup” in an email. And over the years the codes have fallen out of favor even with the public; Comscore, an analytics firm, found that US consumers’ use of QR codes for purchases decreased between 2018 and 2020.

Then hit Covid-19. In the spring and summer, restaurants began displaying codes on outdoor dining tables instead of handing out menus. Schools use them for health checks at the beginning of the school day. Vaccination centers use them to make appointments. If you ever left the house during the pandemic, you likely saw or scanned one.

The attractiveness of QR codes is obvious: They are contactless and easy to scan. You have an open, incontestable logic. Joe Waters, author of QR Codes for Dummies, said, “They just work.” At a time when many things don’t work, this utility works.

The QR code (stands for “Quick Response”) was invented in 1994 by Masahiro Hara, then a young engineer at a Japanese company called Denso Wave, a former division of the automobile manufacturer Denso. On a Zoom call and through a translator, he said he didn’t expect the use of QR codes in the market to increase worldwide (he originally created them to streamline the production of auto parts).

Nonetheless, he was very happy and proud to see that QR codes “support the security of our society” during the pandemic.

When asked to explain the QR code in simple terms, he said: “The QR code is supposed to connect people and information.”

Although QR codes in Asia were still popular in the US for payments and other services, until recently they were widely viewed as unsexy and even problematic. In 2015 TechCrunch called QR codes within 41 words both a “ridicule” and a “frustrating symbol of overdevelopment”. Scott Stratten, who wrote a book on QR code misconduct with his wife, Alison Stratten, said the codes are the “Jurassic Park” of marketing – something brands adopted because they could, not necessarily because they should.

Various outlets have hailed the recent popularity of QR codes as a “renaissance” or “comeback”. (Not for the first time: Wired celebrated the “strange comeback of the dreaded QR code” in 2017.) But for many people, they never went away.

QR codes are ubiquitous, especially in China. More than 90 percent of mobile payments in China are made through WeChat and AliPay, which are based on digital wallets and QR codes. But as with many technologies, their use in recent years has raised questions about privacy, surveillance, and social control. For example, during the pandemic, the Chinese government used QR codes to track the health of citizens.

In a 2017 blog post about their myriad uses in China, Connie Chan, a venture capitalist, wrote that QR codes “could finally go from being a ‘joke’ to wider adoption elsewhere outside of Asia.”

One reason QR codes have been mocked in the US is because brands clumsily adopted them in the early 2010s. Mr Stratten said he was seeing QR codes everywhere at the time, including in illogical places like roadside billboards (hands on steering wheel) and subway stations without cellular.

Then things got even more random. In 2011, Quiring Monuments in Washington state began to post QR codes on graves. The company’s president, Jon Reece, said that although the challengers initially said, “You are not software people, you are tombstone people,” they continue to sell them to this day. QR codes were reportedly “as ubiquitous as chunky black ankle boots” at New York Fashion Week in 2011. But they still mostly appealed to tech geeks.

Wider adoption followed the iPhone’s iOS 11 update in 2017, which allowed users to scan QR codes with their phone cameras. (Previously they had to use a separate app.)

In education, many teachers have consistently found that QR codes are useful for sharing activities and connections with their students. Josh Stock, a 36-year-old sixth grade English teacher in Olathe, Kan., Said he used QR codes to digitally distribute the school newspaper.

“It’s so easy for my generation to understand,” said Randi Hipper, a 17-year-old in Brooklyn who publishes QR codes under the handle @MissTeenCrypto. She is optimistic about her future. “I think this is just the beginning for QR codes,” she said. “QR codes will be absolutely everything.”

“It’s nice to see it’s finally being adopted,” said Sandy Marie Romo, 40, an El Paso school teacher who has been using QR codes for years. “It just shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to do this.”