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6. Bar Codes - Nifty 50

Bar Codes

Bar codes, those dizzying combinations of 30 lines and 29 spaces, are on everything from chewing gum to soft drinks, from books and newspapers, to airline luggage tags and penguins.

Information gleaned from bar codes now helps supermarket chains, bookstores, airlines and many other industries determinewhat products are marketed and, sometimes more important, how, to whom and for what price goods are sold.

Bar codes are also used to help detect and determine consumer buying trends, literally the "why" behind consumer choices. It is estimated more than 100,000 grocery store items alone have bar codes.

Scientists even tag penguins in Antarctica with bar codes to help make data gathering faster and more precise, providing help in research into migration and endangered species.

Latest advances

NSF funding helped play a crucial role -- both earlier and more recently -- in the development of bar codes. In the early 1990s, research in computer vision conducted at the State University of New York-Stony Brook led to major advances in algorithms for bar code readers. That research led to commercial development of a new product line of barcode readers that has been described as a revolutionary advance, enabling bar-code readers to operate under messy situations and adverse conditions.

Work continues on developing two-dimensional bar codes, which will enable far greater amounts of information to be represented in a very compact form. NSF helped fund bar-code research in the 1970s, which helped to perfect the accuracy of the scanners that read bar codes.

Credit must also be given to private industry for its work in development and implementation of bar codes and scanners.

The first bar codes were used at a supermarket in Troy, OH, in 1974, and the scanners that read the bar code were considered large, loud and clumsy. Now scanners are small, hand held, unobtrusive, quiet and quick; they are used everywhere from stores and post offices to hospitals and by researchers in the field.

Original publication date: April 2000

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