July 29, 2015

Digimarc makes your barcode disappear

Digimarc's new invisible barcode technology (photo: Digimarc/Stuart Mullenberg Stuphoto.net)
Goodbye barcodes as we know them: The POS of the future (photo: Digimarc/Stuart Mullenberg Stuphoto.net)
Roll up, roll up for a wonderful piece of retail magic – Digimarc will now make your bar codes disappear. What sounds like part of a David Copperfield show is apparently not magic at all. The Beaverton/Oregon-based company has come up with a way to make barcodes invisible and thus revolutionise what was once itself a revolutionary technology when the UPC was introduced 50 years ago.

According to Digimarc partner and imager maker Datalogic, the new digital watermarking process could speed up scanning time by a least a third and therefore the whole checkout process at your local store. The innovation is currently being tested by Walmart in its innovation Lab 415-C and has been praised by CEO Doug McMillon, which in the retailing world is akin to being knighted by the Queen. Wegmans already prints the digital watermarks on its own label products.

"The technology allows scanners to immediately read from as many as 200 invisible barcodes all over, for instance, a box of cereal," says Digimarc boss Bruce Davis. This represents a great improvement on the conventional method of one barcode per package for 10m items world-wide.

Davis is bullish about his new technology and also believes that checkouts could be eliminated entirely when shopping trolleys are equipped with scanners. This in turn could equate to substantial annual labour cost savings for the retailer. Sounds like a good ROI?

Digimarc (photo: Digimarc/Stuart Mullenberg Stuphoto.net)
(photo: Digimarc/Stuart Mullenberg Stuphoto.net)
It is certainly a game-changing improvement on traditional barcode functionality that is faster, more reliable, more versatile and more secure than today's UPC/EAN (Universal Product Code/European Article Number) symbol. Suppliers will particularly appreciate that it occupies zero space product packaging.

According to the manufacturer, customers can also use a Digimarc-enabled app on their mobile device, scan packaging on the shelf or at home and connect with interactive mobile content, such as product information, special offers, recommendations, and recipes etc.

This would also enable retailers and brands to engage with consumers and collect customer preference data.

The technology is fascinating in itself as it doesn't require special inks or printers. The secret lies in an algorithm that transforms the printed data into minute dots, which convey the required information. These can be read by an imager equipped with appropriate software. Put more simply, the new system is a successor to laser technology.  

(photo: Digimarc/Stuart Mullenberg Stuphoto.net)
(photo: Digimarc/Stuart Mullenberg Stuphoto.net)
Digimarc barcodes are an imperceptible pattern that can be embedded into the images and graphics of printed consumer packaged goods or directly into the packaging material itself. Although the naked eye cannot read them, POS image scanners and other digital imaging devices with more sensitive "eyes" can.

This pattern contains the same Global Trade Identification Number (GTIN) data currently carried in the product's UPC/EAN symbol and is repeated multiple times over the entire package. So checkout clerks and shoppers using self-checkout can quickly pass packages over the POS scanner without having to first orient the UPC/EAN symbol to the reader.   

Surrealism at the checkout

All this is surely good news for consumers who have to endure a current industry average scanning rate for traditionally barcoded packaging of only 21 IPM (Items Per Minute).

In fact, we customers often have to face such long and tedious queues at the till that one could easily gain the impression that retailers believe we enjoy the process of parting with our hard-earned money and want to savour the moment for as long as possible.

Some German retailers, after tracking our every move via CCTV, also oblige us to show that our shopping bags are empty. This demeaning procedure seems to completely reverse the generally accepted principle that all citizens are presumed innocent before the law until proven guilty.

Digimarc (photo: Digimarc/Stuart Mullenberg Stuphoto.net)
(photo: Digimarc/Stuart Mullenberg Stuphoto.net)
We are then greeted with a perfunctory question that somehow sounds like a reproach: "Haben Sie eine Payback-Karte?!" ("Have you a payback card?"). Doubtless there are still many erring mortals who do not know what a Payback card is. But clearly it is in retailers' interest for you to have one, otherwise they wouldn't instruct their staff to interrogate you on whether you are in possession.

While going through this soulless rigamarole, one is all too often forced to endure the sight of stressed and harrassed checkout staff fighting a losing battle with crumpled or soggy packaging in a vain attempt to straighten out a bar code.

The frequently semi-effaced imprint is drawn time and again with ever increasing frustration over the scanner bed, only for the till operator to give up with a sigh or curse. Then, with a final flourish, which reveals the retail torturer as a true artist, a long and miniscule product code has to be entered and sometimes re-entered manually into the system.

Of course, retailers will argue that they now also provide the free-spirited techies among us with self-scanning tills, but more on this harrowing ordeal, as it is imposed on Mr. & Ms Average by most retailers, another time.

So back to the checkout: Given our everyday exercise in patience, anything that will lighten the load for us time-poor, convenience-oriented consumers is surely to be welcomed. Digimarc, if what you say is true, and your magic bar code disappearing act is for real, then, Hallelujah, we want to shake your hand.

Podcast microphone (photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)
(photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)

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Lebensmittel Zeitung with digital sister (photo: LZ)
Our German B2B newspaper, Lebensmittel Zeitung, in print & digital
Read in German: By IT editor Birgitt Loderhose in
Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 30, 24.07.2015

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Comments for this article are closed.

  1. Prof Joshua Bamfield
    Created 29 July, 2015 15:54 | Permanent link

    Nice idea, but more information, please

    This apparently meets a known need in retail. But.

    I have had a look at their website. The concept looks OK, but it is not fleshed out.

    1. What re-equipment (and cost) would be needed for a typical grocery store, running a mix of say 15 self-scanning and operator-scanning devices and where some fresh food sections, say fish, print their own bar codes?

    2. What is the cost per packet for manufacturers to put the watermark on? Same as EAN or three times the price?

    3. Which manufacturers have signed up, given that retailers will need 70%+ of packages to be watermarked before the new process can be successfully introduced?

    4. I go back to the early days of UK laser scanning. One of the big problems in the early-mid 80s was the varying accuracy of printed barcodes. It took some years to sort the problems out. How accurate is the proposed system?

    5. Can current epos software cope with the new speed of scan, or will you have to store more item identifiers locally on each terminal rather than on the central processor?

    I like the idea. Can we have some more information?

  2. Created 29 July, 2015 20:02 | Permanent link

    Digimarc Barcodes

    These are excellent questions, Joshua. Thank you for your observations. As a Digimarc employee, I can speak to some of these and would gladly introduce you to our creative services team for additional detail if you are interested. In response to your questions:

    1. A typical grocery store simply needs a modern optical scanner. We are already integrated with the largest manufacturers of scanners globally, and adding new partners frequently.

    2. There is no per package price! (One of the most notable advantages over other invisible recognition technologies such as RFID.) The fee is based on the code itself being produced - be that for a single promotion, like a postcard or flyer, or a barcode that will be printed on millions of packages. We would be glad to discuss your specific use-case and provide you with a price based on the volume you may require. You will likely be surprised by how little a single code costs.

    3. Unfortunately, most of these agreements are currently confidential, but a simple Google search may be helpful in learning about who has officially adopted the technology, and others will be announced imminently. With that said, the technology also works IN TANDEM with standard barcodes, so it provides immediate value to both brands and retailers irrespective of total market adoption.

    4. We literally set the Guinness World Record for checkout times in January of last year. Recognition is extraordinarily precise. You can see the video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OVYX6368aw

    5. Honestly, this question is beyond my knowledge, but as mentioned above, we would be very glad to answer those questions and any other you may have if you'd like to reach out to us directly. Please feel free to email me at pinky.gonzales@digimarc.com and I can direct you the most suitable party.

    Thank you again for your interest and observations!

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