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Tiny Optical Tags Could Replace Barcodes

Jul 27, 2009 (09:07 AM EDT)

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Researchers from MIT's Media Lab have created a new optical tag that can store a million times more data than a similarly-sized barcode, without the privacy risks of RFID tags.

The tag, called a Bokode, is only 3mm, much smaller than a typical barcode. It relies on a new way of encoding data: measuring the brightness and angle of light rays coming from a Bokode tag.

The technique is discussed in a newly published paper, "Bokode: Imperceptible Visual Tags for Camera-based Interaction from a Distance," which will be presented at SIGGRAPH in New Orleans next month.

Media Lab postdoc Ankit Moha is the lead author of the paper. The co-authors include Media Lab associate professor Ramesh Raskar, graduate student Grace Woo, postdoc Quinn Smithwick, and Shinsaku Hiura of Osaka University.

"The Bokode design presented in this paper encodes and decodes information in angular dimension," the paper states. "This allows standard cameras to see the world around us differently from how the human eye sees it, and allows a camera to detect identity and the relative angle to a small optical tag from a reasonably large distance. The Bokode design enhances the flexibility and usefulness of the classic barcode by allowing users to read and interpret them from large distances using equipment they may already have."

Bokodes -- a portmanteau of the photographic term "bokeh" and "code" -- can be read using an off-the-shelf camera rather than a dedicated reading device like RFID tags, a fact which may help hasten adoption of the technology.

The prototypes aren't yet cost competitive with RFID tags -- they cost $5 each -- but according to the MIT News Service, professor Raskar believes the cost can be brought down to $0.05 each when produced in volume.

Some prototypes rely on a built-in lens and LED light source, but passive versions of the tag, which rely on reflected light, are also being developed. These offer security advantages over active RFID tags: Bokodes can be concealed to prevent unauthorized reading, whereas active RFID tags can be read at a distance with equipment that can receive radio signals.

The researchers foresee Bokodes being used to help link the networked world and the real world more closely, a convergence referred to as "ubiquitous computing." They also anticipate that the technology will improve the motion capture sessions used to enhance films and video games by allowing the orientation of sensors on motion capture actors to be recorded more accurately.

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