That bar code on your cereal box holds information read by a laser scanner. Its not much information, but its enough to let the supermarket take your money, keep track of inventory, follow trends in customer preference, and restock its shelves. Scanners and bar codes speed up checkout, but theyve got a few limitations. The scanning laser needs a direct line of sight to the bar code, and the bar code itself needs to be reasonably clean and undamaged – one reason your cashier might have to swipe that bag of spuds four or five times before the scanner reads it.
Now theres something better, and it comes out of an Office of Naval Research program that goes back four decades. Very small electric crystal chips can now be embedded into products to provide up to 96 bits of information when theyre read by an electromagnetic scanner. (Thats roughly 6 times as much as bar codes hold. It also meets the new industry standard developed by the MIT-led Auto-ID Center.) These new radio-frequency scanners, unlike the optical ones in most supermarkets today, can read the chip whether they have direct line-of-sight to it or not. And dirt? Ordinary dirt matters not at all.
The chips themselves are so small (less than an inch long with the antenna attached, and only about as thick as a pencil lead) and so simple that they dont need a power source--it all comes from the scanner. The new chips store enough information to uniquely tag just about every individual manufactured item. In effect, the scanner reads not only the category and model number, but a serial number for the particular item that bears the tag. The tags can be used for all kinds of marking, supply, tracking, inventory management, and logistical tasks. Imagine checking out by just pushing your cart through the supermarkets door--thats one of the new possibilities some major retailers are looking at.
Gail Cleere | EurekAlert!
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