Everyone who shops at a grocery store, must be familiar with a barcode - the little rectangle of black lines that deliver information to the scanner, to tell the cash register how much to charge you for an item. With today's barcodes, there are three ways to communicate that data optically to the scanner. Barcode Scanners can use ordinary 2-dimensional imaging, flashing lights or images that use time dimension, or variable light wavelengths, such as the ones used in fiber-optic systems to deliver many channels of information through a single fiber simultaneously. The information they provide to checkout scanners is limited to the cost and identification of the item being scanned.
Researchers at the MIT Media Lab have developed an innovative new barcode technology that will provide a much greater diversity of useful information, not only for checkout scanners, but also for shoppers as they browse the store. The new barcodes are called the Bokode system. The term is derived from the Japanese word bokeh, which is a photography term that refers to the round spot of light produced when an image of a light source is taken out of focus. The Bokode system makes us of a camera that is purposely out of focus, encoding the data in an angular dimension. Rays of light that come from the new Bokode tags are variable in their brightness, depending upon the angle used to project them.
The new labels are only 3 millimeters wide - about the size of a regular @ symbol on a keyboard. However, despite their tiny size, they can encode thousands of bits of information. The existing Bokode labels require an LED light source and a lens, but scientists are working on versions that can be made reflective, which would be similar to holographic images used on credit cards, which would be less expensive and less obvious.
One of the biggest advantages of the new labels is that they can be scanned from a distance of up to several meters away. Also, they can be read by any standard digital camera, including cameras built into cell phones. The information contained on the code can include nutritional labels from food products, allowing shoppers to compare products quickly because items located nearby can be all scanned at once. Other applications for the Bokode technology could lead to new products for business meetings, classroom presentations, or video games.
The Bokode system will probably lead to a multitude of new applications for scanning technologies. The current prototypes produced by the Media Lab cost about $5 apiece, primarily because of the convex glass lenses used to create the first devices. But once the labels are produced in mass volumes, the cost could drop to as little as 5 cents apiece.