We are all familiar with the idea of barcodes. Any trip to the grocery store means you will encounter thousands of them, each one assigned to a product. But how exactly do barcodes work? Here is a brief history on barcodes and how they work.
The First Barcode
While they may seem like they’ve been around forever, barcodes as we know them haven’t even been around for more than 50 years. The first standardized barcode was used in a small supermarket called Marsh’s Supermarket in Troy, Ohio. On June 26, 1974, a single purchase was made using a 1D barcode scanner and barcode. What was purchased? One pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum. This small transaction was the first of countless to be performed using barcodes.
While the first 1D barcode was used in 1974, it would be over ten years until the first 2D barcode would be created. In 1987, a man named David Allais registered for a patent for the 2D barcode. The more complex barcodes would once again be the start of a revolutionizing technology.
The most commonly seen by consumers, 1D barcodes are a simply array of black and white lines. These lines are arranged in a specific order, with varying thicknesses. Placed in the right order, they’re able to be read by a scanner using some kind of light, laser, or even a photo. The light is shot at the barcode from left to right. The returning light is then read by the scanner and interpreted. Most often these are used to convey numbers, such as in supermarkets, but they can be used to convey letters and other characters.
However, 1D barcodes are limited in how much data they can convey. Since they can only be scanned in one direction, they are restricted and can only be added to by stacking 1D barcodes on top of one another, a technique that has proven rather effective.
While these are less common in the public sector, they are quickly growing in popularity. That is, in part, due to the readiness of scanners available for 2D barcodes. Most smartphones are built with the capabilities of reading 2D barcodes which convey far more data than a 1D barcode.
While a 1D barcode is able to hold up to 20 characters, 2D barcodes are capable of holding hundreds of times more. A commonly used type of 2D barcode is QR which has the ability to hold 4000 characters. That’s 200 times as much data as a 1D barcode.
Why is this? While a 1D barcode is only scanned horizontally, a 2D barcode is scanned horizontally as well as vertically. This requires a more advanced reader than the traditionally 1D scanners, but the information increase is often worth it. This also allows more information to be stored in a smaller space, allowing for more options to place the barcode.
Barcodes have been making inventory and checkout a faster and easier process for over 40 years, and it will continue to do so in the future. While the technology has traditionally been used for internal business use, it’s beginning to break such boundaries. Some companies have even begun to use them as forms of marketing, allowing customers to scan 2D barcodes to get sales or rewards. The future will only see a more dynamic use of barcodes that will help increase efficiency and engagement.