Exploring Barcodes

When someone says the word "barcode" most people picture the same thing. A series of black lines on a white background, sometimes with a series of numbers or letters beneath it. This original barcode has been around for years and has only recently evolved to more unique and advanced forms. There are many different types of barcodes now. This number increases as the technology behind barcodes develops further. In the recent decade or so, barcodes have grown into new dimensions - two and three dimensions to be exact.

1D Barcodes

One dimensional barcodes, also called 1D barcodes or linear barcodes are the original. The parallel black lines on the white background is the barcode used since the 1970's solely for storing product numbers and serial numbers for purposes of tracking and pricing various products. We see these barcodes on products everyday. These are the areas which are scanned on items we buy on stores to bring up the price, making the lives of cashiers that much easier. Commonly for this purpose a UPC barcode is used, by far the most popular of the linear barcodes. These 1D barcodes, called "Universal Product Codes", consist of 12 numerical digits. There are over 30 similar 1D barcodes that perform similar functions as UPCs. The United States Postal Service has a handful of different barcodes used specifically for tracking packages, called "PLANET", "POSTNET" and Intelligent Mail Barcode. Pharmacies use Pharmacode, their own unique barcode, for printing on pharmaceutical products. Linear barcodes grew into many different forms, which isn't surprising considering they were the standard for tracking products for decades. The low amount of storage space and lack of flexibility however, led to the development of the next type of barcode.

2D Barcodes

This barcodes are called "matrix" or "two dimensional" barcodes, and they are a worthy upgrade to the old one dimensional barcode. 2D barcodes boast a higher storage space and the ability to store more than just a handful of numbers. Instead, the latest versions can store thousands of alphanumeric characters and some can even store characters from other languages! Even more impressive is how many 2D barcodes can perform other functions like launching applications on smart phones, a popular feature of QR Codes, Microsoft Tags and JagTags. The technology behind these 2D barcodes has been around for over 10 years, but popularity has just began to surge in recent years. These codes are usually more of a square shape and use pixel-like geometric shapes, like black dots, triangles or squares encoded with data rather than parallel black lines. The most common form of these barcodes are QR codes, which let a user scan the code with their smart phone to decode the data rather than needing a special hardware scanner, like with 1D barcodes to do so. Scanning the QR code can reveal a link or message, launch a phone call, send a text message, show a map, and more. Many other 2D barcodes, like the aforementioned JagTag and Microsoft Tag perform similar functions and have also started to rise in popularity due to their own unique features.

3D Barcodes

With two dimensional barcodes being so new, why would there be a replacement already? Three dimensional, or "3D", barcodes are more of an upgrade than an out right replacement. These barcodes are very similar to two dimensional barcodes in function. They can be scanned with simple devices like smart phones and even look the same as far as data encoding. The difference comes in durability. 2D barcodes have a built-in error correction that compensates for some smudging and distortion, but this still isn't feasible when it comes to high temperature or chemical environments. Many manufacturers have cried out for barcodes which can stand up to the temperatures and materials that they use everyday to create their products. 3D barcodes are just that. Instead of reading data based on the ratio of black to white in the barcode, they are read based on height. The 3D barcode is embossed on the product and the scanner looks at the height of each module in the barcode comparatively to decode the information inside.

Additional Resources

Barcodes have certainly come a long way since their inception. Since the introduction of two dimensional barcodes, the audience and the potential users for barcodes has increased exponentially, creating more demand for this technology to improve. To learn more about barcodes, both the history and their potential in the future, see some of the links below.