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Masahiro Hara came up with black and white pattern to optimise inventory in automotive industry

The eureka moment that helped Masahiro Hara perfect the Quick Response, or QR code, sprang from a lunchtime 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.

As an employee of the automotive components firm Denso Wave, 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, including kana and kanjicharacters, but the barcodes then in use could hold only 20 or so alphanumeric characters of information each. In some cases, a single box of components carried as many as 10 barcodes that had to be read individually.

Having helped develop a barcode reader in the early 1980s, Hara knew the method had its limitations. “Having to read so many barcodes in a day was very inefficient, and workers were tired of scanning boxes multiple times,” Hara, now a chief engineer at the company, said in an online interview from its headquarters in Aichi prefecture, central Japan.

“We had been making barcode readers for 10 years so we had the knowhow. I was looking at the 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.

Once regarded as a minor inconvenience before the advent of camera-equipped smartphones, 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.

At last month’s virtual G20 summit, the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping called for a “global mechanism” that would use QR codes to issue “health certificates” to revive international travel.

In 2000 – the year the QR code received ISO certification – the technology began to find its way into daily life in Japan, first on betting slips at horse races to quickly identify winning bets. Though not a gambler, Hara recalled feeling a sense of pride whenever he spotted his invention on betting slips discarded on the street by disappointed punters.

But it was the development of smartphone cameras that brought the QR code into widespread use, with in-built apps allowing people to quickly scan arrays of dots to access websites and claim discount coupons. Hara, 63, said he was “amazed” when cashless payments using the code caught on in China. “I never thought it would be used as a form of money.”

The code’s role in government efforts to contain a global public health emergency has also taken him by surprise. “I’m really pleased that it’s being been used to help improve people’s safety,” said Hara, who scans up to 20 times at weekend, mainly in newspapers and magazines. “Back in 1994 we were focused on its use in the economy … we never thought it would be used for something like this.”

Encouraged by the technology’s prominence, he has turned his attention to its potential to contribute to other areas of healthcare. “I’ve been thinking about how to increase the amount of information that can be stored so that the code can handle images,” he said. “For example, it could be possible for people to carry around their x-rays and cardiograms in QR code form.”

In the aftermath of a major earthquake or other natural disaster, aid workers could scan QR codes belonging to sick evacuees to make quick diagnoses and arrange for appropriate medical care.

Denso Wave’s decision to keep the code’s patents open from the outset – in part to encourage other firms to take the technology further – has fuelled its ubiquity and, this year, given health authorities around the world a chance of slowing the virus’s spread.

But its inventor – who named the code on his birthday, 8 August – has no desire to occupy the limelight. “It would be nice if more people knew about our company,” he said, adding that recognition of Japan as the birthplace of the QR code was highest in China, where it is used an estimated 1.8bn times a day for cashless payments alone.

“We don’t receive a commission each time it’s used,” Hara joked. “If only that were the case.”

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