A Pixel Worth a Thousand Words

How a new wave of barcodes could revive retail, and change the way business thinks about packaging.

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They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but if you ask Tony Rodriquez, Digimarc chief technology officer, that number is a little bit closer to a billion.

Beaverton-based tech company Digimarc began by creating unique, inaudible background noise for audio and video. Although the sounds were imperceptible to human ears, they were detectable through computers. These indicators made copyright a breeze for audio and visual content, and delivered a telling blow in the fight against online piracy.

Lately, Digimarc has forayed into barcoding for packaged products, but their new technology is anything but traditional.  The new process relies on placing invisible signifiers inside every pixel of product packaging, so scanning the tiniest sliver of the product provides complete and accurate information.

Instant-recognition barcoding has the potential to revolutionize retail. With billions of dollars lost each year due to routing, stocking and shipping errors, moving products could be smoother and more cost-efficient than ever before.

“So much of the retail industry revolves around accurate product identification,” says Rodriquez.  “Now we have the ability to scan a bag of potato chips even if they’ve been crumpled or a bottle even if the plastic has stretched.”

If saving hundreds of millions of dollars in overhead isn’t intriguing enough, this high-accuracy packaging could have a big impact on Oregon’s sagging retail sector, whose sales continue to decline at nearly 1% a year as they face competition from product delivery service like Amazon.

How you may ask? Brick-and-mortar store employees would save massive amounts of time and energy. The new packaging would allow workers to scan more products in an hour than they normally could in a day, allowing them to focus on what they can give customers what online shopping cannot: face to face interaction.

“Today, when you walk into a grocery store, oftentimes you know more about the products you’re buying than the people who work there. Our technology allows human employees to become experts about the products, to be able to talk to customers, and really bring in that human element,” says Rodriguez “Humans get to focus on what humans do best.”

Online shoppers will also feel the benefits of the new, hyper-identifiable packaging. Not only can the packaging pixels make unique identifiers for every product, they can go a step further by creating a pixel code unique to each individual customer.

“Say you get your prescriptions shipped to you from online,” says Rodriguez. “We would make it so that particular packaging code is unique to only you. When you scan it, it could give you reminders about other medicines you need, other products that might be right for you, and instructions on how to take your medication alongside the other medicines you have.”

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Time will tell if Digimarc’s latest tech will breathe new life into a fading retail industry, but Digimarc’s innovations will undoubtedly caused reverberations throughout the manufacturing sector.

That much is clear, even though the tech is invisible.

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