Drones Light Up Shanghai’s Sky With a QR Code (That You Can Scan)

Is it brilliant or dystopian?
April 20, 2021, 1:36pm
drones form a QR code in Shanghai.
1,500 drones form a QR code in Shanghai. Photo: Bilibili

Hundreds of drones took over Shanghai’s night sky on Saturday with a light show that ended with a giant QR code, a symbol of China’s booming digital economy and consumerism.

The QR code is ubiquitous across China, used for everything from adding friends on messaging apps to paying for groceries at markets, ordering at restaurants, and even giving to panhandlers.

The illuminated QR code, effectively a billboard advertisement in the air, was part of a light show put on by Chinese video-streaming company Bilibili on the first anniversary of the China release of the Japanese role-playing game Princess Connect! Re:Dive. A photo of it went viral on Twitter on Sunday, prompting reactions ranging from amazement to disgust.

Some critics compared it to the ad-filled world of Blade Runner 2049, where massive holographic advertisements compete for people’s attention and constantly nudge them to buy and consume more.

In the show, staged above Shanghai’s scenic waterfront promenade, the Bund, 1,500 illuminated drones formed into the game’s logo and characters before transforming into a floating QR code that links to its homepage.

Bilibili drone qr code

The floating QR code links to a video game's website. Photo: Bilibili

Hundreds of millions of people in China use the QR code in their everyday lives, often for payment using apps made by tech giants including Alibaba and Tencent.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, local governments assigned citizens colored QR code images that indicate their risk of exposure to the coronavirus in order to manage the public health crisis. Residents need to show the code on their smartphones before entering public venues. 

drone show bilibili

Characters from Princess Connect! Re:Dive are displayed in the drone performance. Photo: Bilibili

Bilibili, which has a large Gen-Z user base, declined to comment on the drone performance.

QR codes have been at the center of Bilibili’s marketing campaign for Princess Connect! Re:Dive. 

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When the game debuted in China a year ago, the company printed QR codes across Shanghai’s bus stop billboards and put up a giant QR code outside its own office building. 

The marketing stunt itself became the talk of the Chinese internet. In a comedy video by Bilibili, chief executive Chen Rui acted surprised by the massive QR code, after he ordered employees to come up with adverts that were big and camera-friendly. 

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A Bilibili video shows a giant QR code outside of its office building in Shanghai. Photo: Bilibili

Drone performance at Shanghai’s waterfront area has also become a popular choice for advertising campaigns. 

In a show sponsored by the fire department of Shanghai’s Huangpu district last year, drones morphed into the shape of a firefighting vehicle to attract recruits. Luxury brands including Coach and Bulgari also had their logos displayed in the air using drones.

Last year, Chinese fans of the South Korean girl group Blackpink’s Lisa paid for a drone show displaying her name in the sky of Shanghai to celebrate the fourth anniversary of her debut.

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.