It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment QR codes became a joke. Was it the guy who scanned one of those black and white squares on the back of a Heinz bottle and landed on a page full of porn videos? Or when Gillette ran ad inviting you to scan a code to “read Kate Upton’s mind”? Maybe it was the codes plastered around the New York City subway, across the tracks, making it impossible to scan them without killing yourself. Well, we will never know but everybody started to hate QR codes, they were everywhere and mostly nobody was using them. Before that, though, QR codes seemed like a window to the future. Just point your camera, scan the code, and instantly check into your favorite place on Foursquare. At least, that was the idea. More often it went like this: Point your camera, remember your phone’s camera doesn’t do QR scanning on its own, download another app, open that app, point the camera, scan the code, and end up on some corporate website that’s not even optimized for your phone. Few people ever scanned a code; fewer did twice. QR codes live on in the wild, but they’re like pay phones: a reminder of how things used to be.
Don’t look now, but QR codes have begun to creep back. They have different names now—Snap Codes and Spotify Codes and Messenger Codes and Other Things Codes—and a much improved sense of style, but the idea hasn’t changed. Because QR codes, it turns out, were just ahead of their time. They required a world where everyone always had their phone, where all phone had great cameras, and where that camera was capable of doing more than just opening websites. Over the last few years, both the underlying technology and the way people use it have caught up to QR codes. Before long, scanning codes will feel as natural as thumbing your fingerprint to unlock your phone. And the rise of QR codes will bring augmented reality into your life in all sorts of previously impossible ways. QR codes aren’t a failure from the past. They’re the future. No kidding…
The WeChat Way
The second wave of QR codes started around 2014, when Evan Spiegel went to China. The Snapchat CEO had long been fascinated with WeChat, the messaging app that dominates the online lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese users. During his travels, Spiegel kept seeing WeChat users scanning QR codes. A code-scanning camera is one of WeChat’s central tools: users can quickly point their camera at that dotted square to exchange contact information, interact with brands and celebrities, buy clothes and food, access the web, and much more. Spiegel went home thinking there had to be something there for his own camera-first smartphone app. He called the team at Scan, a Utah-based company behind one of the App Store’s most popular QR readers. Snap acquired the company for a reported $54 million, and Spiegel set the Scan crew to work bringing codes to Snapchat. Three days after the Scan team showed up for work at Snap, Spiegel walked into their office with a giant cardboard box in his arms. He set the box down and lifted out an old dot-matrix printer—one of those loud, whining machines that takes forever to print a page and forces you to rip off the edges once it’s done. Snap’s codes, Spiegel told the team, have to be scannable even if they’re printed on this outdated machine, even if the ink bleeds or fades. He had visions of codes showing up on receipts, or planted on shop windows to be battered by weather and passersby. The code had to look good and work well even in the roughest circumstances.That’s a tough ask for QR codes. If you’re trying to encode anything longer than a simpler URL, your QR code becomes physically too large to put anywhere or too complicated to scan reliably. You definitely can’t scan anything from more than a few feet away. And the jumble of black and white dots doesn’t reveal anything about what’s on the other side, which makes scanning a QR code a risk every time. Plus, they’re hideous. So in addition to bringing QR scanning to the camera that opens every time you tap on Snapchat, the Scan team set out to build a new kind of code.
After some back and forth and a lot of printing on the dot matrix, the Snap team settled on a yellow rectangle with rounded corners, a ghost in the center, and a pattern of dots. They called them Snapcodes. When Snap launched Snapcodes in 2015, offering an easy way to add someone as a friend on Snapchat—just scan their code!—users blanketed the internet with theirs. Snapcodes showed up in Twitter and Facebook profile pictures, on business cards, and tattooed on at least one person’s body. “The White House made a Snapcode, and put it onand made it the White House’s Twitter profile picture,” says Kirk Ouimet, one of Scan’s founders and now the leader of Snap’s Creative Camera team. “That was when I was like, all right, I feel like we’ve contributed something meaningful to Snap.”
Codes turned out to be a perfect addition to Snapchat. The app’s design has always tiptoed the line between delightfully discoverable and impossibly unintuitive; you could spend a thousand years using Snapchat and never encounter all its features. Snapcodes offered shortcuts to all the good stuff. “When you scan a Snapcode you’re going to get a lens that you normally wouldn’t get,” Ouimet says. “The lenses are like the ultimate candy to unlock.” Scan the code on the jumbotron at the football game, get the lens for that specific game. Scan the one on your Dr. Pepper, and you too can become Larry Culpepper, the visor-wearing, soda-serving star of the company’s commercials. Since Snapchat controls the codes and always warns you what you’re opening, scanning one doesn’t feel like clipping a wire hoping the bomb doesn’t explode; it’s more like opening a treasure chest.
Right now, Snap says users are scanning upwards of 8 million codes a day. And that’s with Snapcodes only doing a few things: unlock filters and lenses, open websites, add friends. What will people do with all those codes in the future? Ouimet won’t say, but WeChat and China offer some intriguing ideas. You could walk into a restaurant, scan the code on your chair, and then order and pay for a meal on your phone that’s brought directly to your seat. Rather than just using a code to get into the movie theater, you could scan a poster to buy the tickets. A bike-sharing service can use QR codes to let members check out bikes just by scanning a code on its frame. All of this exists, and more is coming. “You can imagine a television where you scan a QR code and that takes you to a troubleshooting instruction manual,” says Connie Chan, a partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz who focuses on China. You could go to a store, and rather than a cash register they could just have a QR code. Scan it and you’ve paid.
Whatever the future looks like, Snapcodes is built to handle it. Snapchat’s camera uses the ghost to properly orient the code, reads the grid of dots—160 in all—to determine which code you’re scanning, then match that to the Snapcode database. Simple, and virtually infinite: Ouimet says Snapchat users could create a Snapcode every second and still not exhaust every option before the heat-death of the universe. “It’s like 160 undecillion” options, he says. “It’s basically, for all intents and purposes, infinite.”