Virtually every product that you can buy in a traditional retail setting has a bar code. Developed after World War II to read product information at checkout, bar codes are now also used as a means of controlling stock and helping with inventory. The first bar codes were actually data represented in widths of parallel lines.
Today, newer versions have graduated from a simple series of machine-readable lines to instead include squares, dots, hexagons, and other geometric patterns that still remain a 2-D matrix of codes or symbologies. These new bar codes can provide far greater information than the first- and second-generation linear bar codes. However, the downside to the various systems is that each needs its own reader or scanner; otherwise, the information is just a digital piece of artwork.
One of the new types of bar codes is often called a bokode, holding thousands of times more information than a standard bar code. Developed at MIT Media Lab, the bokode pattern features a tiled series of data matrix codes. And because it uses images that aren’t limited to a line (a bar), this new technology takes the name as a combination of the old bar code with the photographic term bokeh (the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photographic image).
The most notable difference with these new bokodes is that they can be circular, and the labels can be as small as 3 millimeters across. Even at that tiny size, these bokodes can contain far more information than an ordinary bar code, but they require a lens and built-in LED light source to be read — making them impractical for most retail or inventory uses. However, technology is in development to make these reflective, similar to the holographic images used on driver’s licenses and credit cards.
The advantage to this future technology is that it would be readable from different angles and from greater distances than traditional linear bar codes. Unlike radio frequency identification tags, bokodes can be covered up. This could be seen as a privacy advantage, but it can also become a disadvantage for security and inventory tracking, as the bokode still needs to pass a scanner.
Another next-gen coding system is the new quick response (QR) code, along with the QR code reader application for the iPhone, QRdecode. This app allows users to scan 2-D QR codes. From Denso Wave (available from the Apple app store for $1.99), the app can also be used to create personalized QR codes to give out information, allowing users to provide names, numbers, and e-mail addresses that can be scanned by the app. Codes can further contain text messages or even a URL.
While they were originally developed for factory use, these codes can be printed on promotional materials for trade shows and consumer events, and each code has more than 7,000 numeric characters encoded in it. Thus, even for inventory uses, the QR codes can store up to several hundred times the amount of data carried by traditional bar codes, and they can be scanned and read from any direction. Perhaps the final reason to consider incorporating these codes into your business is that they can withstand stains and damage, and data can be restored, even if more than 30 percent of the code is damaged.
More Next-Gen Codes
Denso Wave is not the only next generation bar code technology aiming to get people scanning with their handsets. Microsoft Tag, an end-to-end QR code system that was developed for smartphones to receive content, has been in beta for 18 months and recently passed the beta stage. Tag is compatible with BlackBerry, iPhone, Symbian, Android, and of course, Windows Mobile handsets. The technology is free, allowing businesses to use it as a direct marketing tool.
Google is another major player looking to see the wider adoption of bar codes. This past year the company introduced its Favorite Places on Google page, which asks business owners to place a bar code or QR code on their storefronts.
Here are some more tips for how your business can use next-gen bar code technology.
- Code it. With the introduction of Microsoft’s Tags and Denso Wave’s QR, why not include a scannable 2-D bar code on any printed materials your company might provide? This could help you reach customers directly through their handsets — even after a promotional flier is tossed away.
- Promote it. Likewise, if your business does promotional giveaways, such as T-shirts or posters, include the codes. There are apps that read them, and you can offer coupons for those who do the scan.
- Track inventory. In the same manner traditional bar codes can track sales and supplies, new bar codes can help a small office manage inventory for supplies such as paper or toner. QR codes can even let you create codes so you can get alerts (“This is the last box of toner, order more,” for example).