QR Code: A Covid Innovation in The U.S., A Lifestyle in China

For years, the QR Code was dismissed as at best a technology “occasionally useful, but often pointless”, or worse, a pathetic gimmick – who would want to download some app to scan a code that leads you nowhere but a poorly loaded ad page? 

While this was the case ten years ago, it turns out that the full potential of QR Codes takes much more than a camera phone with an Internet connection to unleash. The technology needs a camera that reads QR codes, a fast Internet connection (such as 4G), and smart phone ubiquity, that is, everyone is using a cell phone capable of the above technologies. A 2017 WIRED article put it well, “QR Codes were just ahead of their time.”

CNBC recently reported on the widespread use of QR Codes in restaurants during the pandemic. In a time when every physical object is a potential virus carrier, QR Codes allow touch-free service by replacing paper menus with a code printed on the table itself. Once scanned, guests can access the menu, customize their order, and pay in one seamless transaction. The technology doesn’t just benefit customers, however, as it also benefits the restaurants by allowing a much more efficient operation with less staff.

According to link management service Bitly, QR code downloads have increased 750% over the last 18 months. As Americans have only begun to pick up the value of QR Codes, here in China these black-and-white pixel squares have been around for nearly ten years.

In 2012, Tencent first introduced (link in Chinese) the function to “Scan it” (扫一扫) by integrating QR Code technology with WeChat. This step proved to be an empowering innovation of the long-dismissed concept of O2O (Offline to Online), making QR Code technology more effective and far reaching.

As one of the most used apps in the world, WeChat boasted 1.25 billion monthly active users as of June 2021. This massive user base and the continuous development of new features have enabled WeChat to grow into a “super app” with strong infrastructure-building capabilities.

Built into WeChat, QR Codes took this advantage and soon became one of the most commonly used tools in the everyday life of contemporary China. It is used in numerous scenarios by individuals from tech-savvy youths to elderly street vendors, small businesses, big businesses, public institutions…You name it.

The basic application of QR Codes includes adding new contacts, making payments, and of course, placing orders in restaurants. But it can do so much more. 

On the street, users can rent bikes by scanning the unique QR code printed on the handlebars. In some Chinese cities, public toilets are equipped with toilet paper vending machines with QR Codes for people to purchase toilet paper or sanitary pads. 

When arriving at a popular restaurant, the first thing to do is to scan a code to queue up, as it were. The code takes customers directly to a page with their place in the queue and estimated waiting time. With this, people don’t have to wait in a physical line but instead can go grab a coffee, which, of course, is ordered by scanning a QR code. 

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QR codes can be used as a digital pass. A valid QR code gives you access to any place you want. Many cities in China have now equipped their public transportation, from buses to subways, with QR Code readers that allow people to ride by simply scanning a temporary QR code auto-generated on their mobile payment apps. In a self-service store, consumers must scan a QR code to enter, and when they leave, the items can be automatically charged to their account.

QR Code technology has also been widely used in China’s courier delivery service. Express companies use QR Codes to track items while customers use them to collect parcels. Most gated communities nowadays are equipped with smart courier cabinets where delivery persons can store parcels for people to pick up at their convenience. Customers are notified on WeChat or via text messages and collect their packages by scanning the QR Code on the courier cabinet where the parcels are stored.

While it has taken a pandemic to unleash the QR Code’s potential in the U.S., in China, it took a revolutionary combination of a social media app with a code that bridged together the offline and online worlds.