New Millennium Bar Codes

By John Edwards, CIO |  Hardware

BAR CODES HAVE BEEN PROMINENTLY DISPLAYED on magazine covers, cereal boxes and other retail products for more than 25 years, and they aren't about to disappear. In fact, if a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-sponsored e-commerce technology group has its way, turbo-charged bar codes will be plastered onto just about everything you touch.

According to Kevin Ashton, executive director of the Cambridge, Mass.-based MIT Auto-ID Center, a world awash in next-generation bar codes would be a much better -- and more convenient -- place in which to live and work. "We're looking at a world in which computers will know about things without having to be told by human beings," he says.

The key to Ashton's vision is the creation of a chip-based Electronic Product Code (ePC), which would replace the current Universal Product Code (UPC). "While the UPC defines groups of objects, the ePC will define individual objects," he says. "The ePC will create a world in which physical objects can integrate into the Internet in order to communicate vast amounts of information."

To accomplish this goal, the center's proposed ePC "smart tag" would provide a 96-bit ID number with enough room to identify and describe a virtually endless array of objects, including retail products, industrial equipment, household appliances and luggage. Unlike UPC, which can only be decoded with a laser reader, ePC smart tags will be able to transmit their information via radio link. A nearby receiver/reader can then identify the data and transform it into an IP address containing formatted information.

ePC promises to make a wide range of information easily available to a variety of microprocessor-based devices. Such information would be put to good use: A box of frozen pasta, for example, would be able to tell a microwave oven how to cook it, and a milk carton could tell a refrigerator that it has passed its expiration date. On a business level, the technology would allow manufacturers to track their products across the supply chain. Smart shelves in supermarkets would be able to adjust their prices to appeal to particular customers.

Yet much work remains to be done before ePC technology can become a part of daily life. The development of inexpensive receiver/readers and smart tags are just a couple of the hurdles that the Auto-ID Center and partners such as Motorola, Sun Microsystems and Procter & Gamble must overcome. But Ashton is optimistic that most of the problems can be rapidly resolved, since the basic technological building blocks are already in place. As a result, he expects that the first ePC smart tags could appear in 2002 and that widespread use may occur by 2005.

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