Micro Mirage: Researchers Make The World’s Smallest QR Code

Update:  March 22, 2024
Micro Mirage: Researchers Make The World’s Smallest QR Code

Researchers fabricate the tiniest QR code in the world, unseen by the naked eye and only visible by an infrared camera lens.

Yes, you read that right. The familiar, ever-evolving QR code is switching to stealth mode. 

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University (PSU) and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) joined forces to develop a shrunken-down, microscopic version of a QR code as a sort of framework to prove this novel technology works. 

What can an infrared QR code do? Let’s delve into this fascinating creation and explore how it can enhance optical security measures, protect information, and refine infrared surveillance.

World’s smallest QR code inspired by leafhoppers

Leafhopper camouflage properties

An insect (Graphocephala coccinea) the size of a grain of rice pushes the boundaries of bioinspired nanotechnology with its special camouflaging properties. 

“Our collaborators came to us with brochosomes—a ‘magic’ structure leafhoppers produce to create a cloak effect to hide from predators,” said Sheng Shen, a professor of mechanical engineering at CMU.

“We wanted to understand brochosomes’ optical limitations to see what more we could do with them.”

The QR code they created by mimicking a leafhopper’s nanoscale structures measures less than two percent of an inch, making it the smallest QR code to date. 

These structures, known as brochosomes, resemble soccer balls with cavities that absorb light rather than reflect it onto outside shapes, which biologists suspect give leafhoppers the ability to blend in with their surroundings. 

The team of researchers did a simulation for two variations of the structure: one featuring cavities or holes for light absorption and one without. 

“There is a fundamental law in physics that if a structure is a good absorber of energy, it can emit an equal amount of energy,” said Zhuo Li, a Ph.D. candidate at CMU. 

“We quickly realized that if we put both structures together, one would emit more energy than the other. That would make one appear brighter to an infrared camera than the other.”

From pixels to a readable QR code 

The smallest QR code

In comes the fabricated micro QR code. 

With an advanced 3D printing technique, the researchers could manipulate which nanoscale structure would be printed with or without holes, which is how they were able to make the microscopic QR code. 

“With this technology, we are ultimately distorting an object’s thermal signature,” said Li. “We have the power to disguise how objects are displayed on an infrared camera.”

“Hypothetically, if we laid the brochosome pixels accordingly, we could paint a patrol car to appear as a delivery van to infrared security.”

What does this mean for optical security and data encryption?

Well, for one, merging QR code and infrared technologies adds an extra layer of security, poses night-vision compatibility, and is difficult to replicate or forge compared to a regular QR code. 

Scaling the code

So, does this mean regular QR codes of standard proportion aren’t as safe as these new minuscule infrared ones? Not at all.

QR code security primarily depends on the QR code generator you choose to work with. 

Look for one with a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate and fully complies with the EU general data protection regulation (GDPR), the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and ISO 27001, like QR TIGER an advanced QR code maker. 

This generator has a QR code for everyone, whether you’re managing a post office, developing product packaging, or need an impressive digital business card. A rule of thumb to consider is the more information encoded, the smaller the dots get in your QR code. 

And the smaller the dots, the harder it is for your device to read it. If that’s the case, we suggest opting for dynamic QR codes as opposed to static QR codes. 

Another thing to keep in mind is distance. The farther your QR code will be placed, let’s say, on a billboard, the larger your QR code should be, so people passing by won’t have a problem scanning it.


The shift from camouflage to encryption 

“We’ve taken infrared light and turned it from an energy carrier to an information carrier,” said Shen Sheng, and we think this is only the beginning of this exciting new technology. 

Sheng and his team, by mimicking nature’s ingenuity, took the intricate structures found on leafhoppers and made them their own, laying out the groundwork for future scientists to welcome a new era of data security and information sharing. 

And while infrared information carriers are still an emerging technology, the real-life implications are vast. Think covert operations, enhanced infrared surveillance, and even fortified anti-forgery measures. 

In the realm of infrared surveillance, in particular, microscopic QR codes can be embedded in objects, buildings, or even clothing, opening doors to a wealth of encrypted information accessible only to those authorized. 

There are challenges to this technology, of course, like reader availability and environmental factors, though the future of infrared-readable QR codes is undeniably bright.

Brands using QR codes

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