29 November 2007

Reinventing the Bar Code

Barcodes, like this one found on a soda can, are found on almost everything we buy.

­Almost everything that you buy from retailers has a UPC bar code printed on it. These bar codes help manufacturers and retailers keep track of inventory. They also give valuable ­information about the quantity of products being bought and, to some extent, by whom the products are being bought. These codes serve as product fingerprints made of machine-readable parallel bars that store binary code.

Created in the early 1970s to speed up the check out process, bar codes have a few disadvantages:

  • In order to keep up with inventories, companies must scan each bar code on every box of a particular product.
  • Going through the checkout line involves the same process of scanning each bar code on each item.
  • Bar code is a read-only technology, meaning that it cannot send out any information.

RFID tags are an improvement over bar codes because the tags have read and write capabilities. Data stored on RFID tags can be changed, updated and locked. Some stores that have begun using RFID tags have found that the technology offers a better way to track merchandise for stocking and marketing purposes. Through RFID tags, stores can see how quickly the products leave the shelves and who's buying them.

In addition to retail merchandise, RFID tags have also been added to transportation devices like highway toll passcards and subway passes. Because of their ability to store data so efficiently, RFID tags can tabulate the cost of tolls and fares and deduct the cost electronically from the amount of money that the user places on the card. Rather than waiting to pay a toll at a tollbooth or shelling out coins at a token counter, passengers use RFID chip-embedded passes like debit cards.

But would you entrust your medical history to an RFID tag? How about your home address or your baby's safety? Let's look at two types of RFID tags and how they store and transmit data before we move past grocery store purchase­s to human lives.

Bar Code History
At 8:01 a.m. on June 26, 1974, a customer at Marsh's supermarket in Troy, OH, made the first purchase of a product with a barcode, a 10-pack of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit Gum. This began a new era in retail that sped up checkout lines and gave companies a more efficient method for inventory control. That pack of gum took its place in American history and is currently on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. That historical purchase was the culmination of nearly 30 years of research and development. The first system for automatic product coding was patented by Bernard Silver and Norman Woodland, both graduate students at the Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel University). They used a pattern of ink that glowed under ultraviolet light. This system was too expensive and the ink wasn't very stable. The system we use today was unveiled by IBM in 1973 and uses readers designed by NCR.

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