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QR Codes, Barcodes, RFID Tags and Near Field Communication

Barcodes, RFID Tags and Near Field Communication

FACT: Fifteen to 25 million Americans used mobile barcode scanners in 2010—up 1600 percent in one year. The greatest users, according to ScanLife’s Mobile Bar Code Trend Report? Not who you might think. Young baby boomers and generation X—the 35 to 54 age group—meaning that mainstream America is catching on.

Barcodes: The One-Dimensional Identifier

Scan a barcode and you’ll likely get a 12- to 20-digit number. Used primarily for serial numbers, pricing and inventory control, barcodes mark products, materials and packaging worldwide. The most common barcode in North America is the 12-digit Universal Product Code (UPC) code. UPC codes grace everything from groceries to books, any merchandise that needs to be tracked. Marketers track consumer preferences by analyzing what they purchase. With the advent of free barcode scanners on mobile devices, marketers can pinpoint what age groups are buying what. Applications like ShopSavvy give you imaged product reviews, local store and product promotions grouped in categories.

RFID Tags: Not Just For Retail

Originally adopted by the Department of Defense in the 1970’s, radio frequency identification tags, known as RFIDs, were used to track shipping containers. You see them everywhere, but probably don’t realize what you’re looking at. You’ve probably been caught by telltale alarms beeping as you attempt to exit a store. Blame those white, hard-to-remove tags. These radio frequency tags contain a tiny microchip and an antenna, which contain up to 2,000 characters. Merchants use them for inventory and anti-theft control. They can register and track data from up to 40 feet away. Your passport now has them and so do library books. Dogs and farm animals are routinely implanted with RFID tags, prompting some to fear that it is a matter of time before humans are routinely implanted.

The RFID tags today are silicon-based, but that soon may change as scientists at Rice University are working to perfect a nano-based tag. This could be a game-changer. Just one gram of the thin-walled, carbon-based nanotubes can produce one trillion RFID tags printed on paper or plastic. Scanning must be done closely, at just a meter, but scientists are working ways to lengthen it to about 300 meters or 984.25 feet—a little over the length of three football fields. That’s a good-sized warehouse. Imagine a tiny RFID nano-tag remitting a warehouse full of data on its goods in real time—for cheap.

NFC: Phones That “Bump”

Near Field Communication (NFC) connects users by short-range wireless technology. When two phones, for example, “bump” each other—they don’t even have to touch—they can transmit data between them. The phones must be close enough for you to feel the bump (about an inch) AND both phones must contain an NFC chip and application. Its technological foundation is inductive-coupling, for those of you so inclined to technology. PayPal recently began to allow transactions to occur by bumping phones. It’s not just phones that you can bump, it’s anything with an NFC chip embedded in them: posters, glass, maps. Next time you take a friend to dinner, try bumping phones to get his portion of the bill, providing you go dutch.

Then there are the QR codes. Can they compete with the next generations of RFID tags and NFCs? How does this affect how you use your smartphone? Will all these technological choices make lives easier or will mainstream America dismiss it as techno-babble? In techno-land, the night is young. We’ll have to see what the dawn brings.