What businesses need to know about new bar codes

Virtually every product that you can buy in a traditional retail setting has a bar code, writes Peter Suciu on allbusiness.com.

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.


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