Bar codes of future will give voice to the inanimate

Monday, March 4, 2002

PITTSBURGH -- The bar code of the future includes a little bit of the World War II dogfighter.

Researchers, financed by some major retailers, are refining radio identification technology developed for U.S. fighter pilots in the 1940s to make "smart labels" -- tiny computerized tags embedded in everyday items that could tell consumers when eggs or milk have turned.

The labels, tiny radio transponders made of microchips and mini-antennas, ought to make life easier inside stores, supermarkets and kitchens, retailers and researchers say.

The Gillette Co., Procter & Gamble, Target and Wal-Mart, as well as the federal government, have funded smart label research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with grants of at least $300,000.

Manufacturers and distributors believe smart labels could reduce snags in supply lines by tracking products as they make their way from plants to people's pantries.

"We are just making our best educated guesses as far as what people need," said Wendy Jacques, a spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble. "We hate to run out, so you see a lot of products in warehouses waiting to be shipped out."

Smart labels could result in consumers spending less time in check-out lines, as whole shopping carts full of items are scanned at once.

In the kitchens of the future, computerized refrigerators could tell people when their milk spoils. Microwave dinners could cook themselves.

An outgrowth of radar

Smart labels have already been developed.

They are brainier than bar codes, holding as much as 64 times as much information that can be relayed to merchants 40 times as fast. Scanners can read them from five feet away. Information on the label can be reprogrammed.

The technology being refined for smart labels was developed during World War II as an outgrowth of radar. The Allies outfitted aircraft with transponders which allowed radar technicians to determine whether the planes were friendly or not. Later, fighter pilots and air traffic controllers used it for the same purpose.

But for the next decade or so, smart label technology will be too expensive for cans of soup and tubes of toothpaste, said Mike Liard, an analyst with Venture Development Corp., a Natick, Mass.-based consulting firm.

Smart labels cost from 40 cents to $4 apiece, which can add up to plenty for manufacturers and distributors.

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