Masahiro Hara came up with black and white pattern to optimise inventory in automotive industry, but it is now being widely used to help protect us all from coronavirus.
Masahiro Hara's eureka moment that helped him perfect the Quick Response, or QR code, occurred during a game of Go more than a quarter of a century ago. He was playing the ancient game of strategy at work when the stones arranged on the board revealed the solution to a problem troubling the firm’s clients in Japan’s car industry - and which is now being repurposed as a weapon in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
Normally the law of unintended consequences refers to surprising, negative outcomes but, the good news in the case of QR codes, is that it's all remarkably positive.
A couple of decades ago, as an employee of a Japanese automotive components firm, Masahiro Hara had been fielding requests from factories to come up with a better way to manage their inventories of an ever-expanding range of parts. Workers wanted a less labour-intensive way to store more information, but the barcodes then in use could hold only 20 or so alphanumeric characters of information each. Having helped develop a barcode reader in the early 1980s, Hara knew the method had its limitations.
“We had been making barcode readers for 10 years so we had the knowhow. I was looking at the Go board and thought the way the stones were lined up along the grids… could be a good way of conveying lots of information at the same time.”
And so the theory behind the QR code was born. Twenty six years later, the two-dimensional patterns of tiny black and white squares, which can handle 200 times more information than a standard barcode, have revolutionised the way we shop, travel and access websites - and
the humble QR code is now undergoing a renaissance during the coronavirus pandemic.
Since early this year it has been deployed in everything, from customer check-ins at restaurants to digital menus and contactless payments, and is used in contact-chasing apps in several countries, including the system used by the NHS.
The code’s role in government efforts to contain a global public health emergency has taken Hara by surprise. “I’m really pleased that it’s being been used to help improve people’s safety,” said Hara. “Back in 1994 we were focused on its use in the economy … we never thought it would be used for something like this.”
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