"Barcodes" get New Life

Stephen DeAngelis

May 25, 2011

Rachel Beck writes, “It used to be that the only time you’d notice a bar code was at a store, maybe when a cashier scanned your groceries. But lately bar codes are showing up in more places around town — and getting more sophisticated.” [“Bar codes get around town and get more useful,” The Houston Chronicle, 7 June 2011] Many of us remember the days before barcodes, when each item had to be hand-labeled with a little sticker. Each time the price of the item changed, a new label had to be attached. When barcodes came along, they didn’t immediately gain wide acceptance. The editorial staff at Supply Chain Digest reminds us, “There was a time when bar coding was very hard.” [“A Retro View – the Ten Commandments of Bar Coding,” 1 December 2010]. They write:

“As strange as it may seem for today’s generation, in the early days of bar coding (1980s and through much of the 1990s), the technology had many pit falls and companies often ran into many problems with bar code quality, scannability, label appropriateness and other issues that caused real problems with their ability to consistently read bar code symbols correctly. … Today, improvements in printer and scanner quality and capabilities, and knowledge about bar code media and related issues, have in general made the technical performance problems a rare issue.”

The term “barcode” will likely remain a part of our vernacular even though scannable images are rapidly transforming from the straight-line pattern that gave them their name. A similar phenomenon was experienced in golf. Players called their clubs “fairway woods” long after they had transitioned to metal construction. Beck explains:

“You might have seen one cousin of the traditional bar code: Known as a QR code, this jumble of little squares randomly arranged within a larger square is popping up on everything from bus stop billboards to restaurant windows. If you spot one and snap it with your cell phone camera, the device can show you a website, photo or video related to the advertiser.”

Beck assumes, of course, that you are using a smartphone rather than a simple cellphone with a camera. To get the most out of quick response (QR) codes, you need to be linked to the World Wide Web. Traditional barcodes serve much more modest purposes. As Beck explains, “The bar code on your box of cookies encodes a string of numbers horizontally that a bar code reader matches with information from a central database. That’s how the supermarket scanner identifies the product you’re buying.” QR codes have much more ambitious goals in mind. Beck reports that the QR code has been around since the 1990s when it was released by “Japanese scanning equipment maker Denso Wave Inc.” She also notes that early “attempts to get consumers to scan bar codes that link with the Web didn’t get much traction.” She continues:

“What has changed now, though, is that consumers are increasingly engaging with their mobile devices for more than making phone calls, texts and checking e-mails. And smart phones can easily download scanning applications that make it possible for product codes to leap from store shelves to the wider world.”

The reason that QR (or similar) codes will likely surpass the ubiquity of barcodes is because “they can include much more information in a smaller space, and some of them can tell the scanning app on your phone all it needs to know about which website or video to pull up, without needing to consult a database.” In addition, the global market for smartphones is predicted to outpace the market for regular cellphones. Mike Abramsky and Paul Treiber, from RBC Dominion Securities Inc., believe that this growth will be “driven by four key factors: 1) disruptive innovations in mobile software and hardware; 2) rising consumer/business demand for mobile data (messaging, browsing, applications); 3) faster wireless networks; and 4) mass market Smartphone and data pricing.” [“Sizing the Global Smartphone Market,” 12 November 2008] The usefulness of QR codes will increase along with smartphone penetration rates. All of this may happen faster than most people anticipate. According to Juniper Research, “Mobile phones are set to replace physical travel tickets in most European countries and other major parts of the world by as early as 2015.” [“Mobile phones to replace tickets by 2015: Research,” by Rahul Gupta, The Mobile Indian, 3 May 2011]. Beck reports that it is “unclear how many of these codes are out there, but potentially billions could be created.” One relative of the QR code doesn’t need a smartphone to be useful. Beck explains:

“Since March, movie ticket site Fandango has allowed some filmgoers to get tickets on their phones in the form of similar-looking ‘Datamatrix’ codes. The on-screen code is then scanned at the theater. Users don’t need to have smart phones for this to work.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge with image codes on cellphones is that they are difficult to scan. Finger smudges and scratches can make them unreadable to scanners. Presumably these challenges will eventually be overcome. All of these new developments may sound like the death of old barcodes, but don’t write their eulogy just yet. Beck reports that a company called “stickybits” is trying to breath new life into traditional barcodes. She reports:

“Stickybits encourages consumers to download a cell phone application that lets them link videos, music and pictures to everyday bar codes like the one on a can of soda. … Using a phone running Google Inc.’s Android operating software, I scanned the bar code on a bottle of moisturizer on my desk and used my phone keypad to add a silly message: ‘Yay, moisturizer!’ Later, when I scanned the code on the same bottle, the phone showed that someone in Atlanta had scanned another bottle of the same product (which would have the same bar code), and augmented my message with a picture of her presumably well-moisturized left hand. Sure, there’s no huge point to this, beyond whimsy and the chance to trumpet your opinion about a product. However, stickybits envisions that businesses would pay the company to use its service to create large numbers of codes with specialized content. Billy Chasen, stickybits’ founder, says the idea arose because he wanted to use phones to bridge the gap between the digital and physical worlds and let people see what others are thinking about objects. Chasen says stickybits decided to make use of the traditional bar codes because people are familiar with them. Even so, stickybits’ app will work with QR codes as well.”

Helen Leggatt claims that QR codes are “the next ‘big thing’.” [“QR Code use up 1200% in six months,” BizReport, 10 February 2011]. In a later article, Leggatt reports that “increased use has been driven by high profile marketing campaigns along with a rise in smartphone adoption.” [“Conde-Nast uses 2D barcodes to allow readers to ‘Like’ advertisers,” BizReport, 2 May 2011] She reports that “QR Codes are now being scanned more than 1D barcodes for the first time since the second quarter of 2010.” If you are interested in learning about how “small businesses may be able to use [QR codes] to sell things,” Jonathan Blum provides some good information in an article entitle “Roundup: QR Code Tools,” Entrepreneur, 19 April 2011].

Turning from the consumer side of barcodes to the supply side, Cognex, a company that designs and manufactures machine vision systems, believes that “the high volume and frequency of orders placed over the Internet combined with a multitude of available products from retailers make automated scanning at logistics centers more important than ever.” [“Image-based Barcode Readers Transforming the Logistics Industry,” Modern Materials Handling, 28 March 2011]. The company claims that its image-based systems can outperform more traditional laser-based scanner systems. It explains:

“Laser systems provide high read rates with good-quality printed barcodes when labels are undamaged, but they have difficulty reading codes under less than ideal conditions. Image-based readers can provide improved read rates, but their cost and complexity have limited their use to high-volume distribution centers … until now. A new generation of image-based readers is poised to revolutionize the market, offering sufficient speed at a price point equal to or lower than that of laser-based alternatives.”

Cognex has been joined by SICK, a company that manufactures sensors, safety systems, machine vision, and automatic identification products for factory and logistics automation, as a supplier of image-based systems. Because bar and QR codes are cheap to include on products, they are likely to be around for a long time. With new apps being created every day that permit people use technology in ways unimagined even five years ago, I suspect that new uses for bar and QR codes will also come along. The codes are all about creating data — useful data that can be used to make supply chains more transparent and the customer experience better.