The Bar Code Evolves With QR Social Revolution

October 24, 2011
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Quick Response or QR codes are the black and white pixilated boxes in ads, labels, magazines and even cereal boxes. And they’re coming your way. 

What if you could trace the history of all the things you buy back to their origins? Using a smart phone camera, you could learn where the ingredients in your heart medication were made, what country grew the corn in your breakfast cereal, or how to recycle the phone. You could also trace the entire life cycle of a product and all who handled it along the way to ensure that the medicine you're taking isn't counterfeit and that the food you're eating is safe.

This may soon become a reality, according to Scott Morris, a food science and human nutrition professor at University of Illinois, Urbana, Ill., an expert on the history and evolution of packaging and author of "Food and Package Engineering."

Bar codes, the ubiquitous black-and-white bars applied to packages that began as a means of scanning prices and tracking inventory, are changing into a broader class of identifiers in new and startling ways, says Morris, who also is a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at U of I. As the technology advances, these electronic identifiers allow access to more information about the contents and history of products and are opening new channels of communication between buyers and sellers.

The QR (quick response) code is a new species of two-dimensional bar code that can be scanned with a cell phone, and supplies a direct link between the shopper in a store and information about the scanned product online.

Manufacturers and retailers are trying to take advantage of this new technology-driven interaction, but they’re also struggling to cope, Morris explains. The shopper has unprecedented power to identify the best products at the best prices he or she can find. And those who are unhappy with their purchases can let the world know about it in real time.

Companies have a lot at stake and a lot to gain from more sophisticated bar codes, says Morris. Those who embrace the changes can quickly enlist web visitors online to help develop their products and packaging. Identifiers that capture the life history of each package and its contents can dramatically enhance the security, accountability and traceability of the items people purchase and use every day, he says.

The QR code isn’t yet considered mainstream, but its usage and popularity are on the rise. In June, 14 million mobile users in the United States, or roughly 6.2% of the total domestic mobile audience, scanned a QR or a bar code on their mobile device, according to a study by comScore, an Internet retailing site. The study found that users are most likely to scan codes found in newspapers or magazines and on product packaging.


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