July 20, 2018

Multi-colored barcodes could store three times the data as black and white

Multi-colored barcodes could store three times the data as black and white

JAB-Code patterns will likely see applications in government ID documents before logistics, AIM says.

By Ben Ames

Researchers with the Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility (AIM) say they are drafting standards for a type of two-dimensional barcode that can store up to three times as much data as conventional barcodes by encoding data in a colorful matrix of dots instead of a typical black and white pattern.

The design is called JAB-Code, a tongue-in-cheek acronym for "Just-Another-Bar-Code," but supporters say it could have a big impact on applications such as embedding identity documents with unique biometric information like fingerprints or iris scans.

Current barcode standards used on documents such as birth certificates, graduation certificates, and visas have the storage capacity to record only basic identity data, requiring users to go online to verify them, according to Sprague Ackley, a fellow with Honeywell Sensing & Productivity Solutions and the chairman of AIM's Working Group One (WG 1) standards body.

However, a document printed with a JAB-Code pattern can hold about 300 bytes of data, roughly three times as much as conventional, black and white, 2-D barcodes, Ackley said in a webcast presentation released July 12 by AIM. That greater storage capacity could allow document holders to skip the verification step and immediately confirm that they are the true holders of their paperwork.

Researchers in the automatic identification and data capture (AIDC) field have been investigating versions of polychrome—or multi-colored—barcodes since the 1960s, leading up to the most recent version, known as the Ultracode standard, Ackley said in the webcast.

Recent work done by German research organization the Fraunhofer Institute has taken that concept a step further, defining JAB-Code as a pattern that can deploy many colors—four, 8, 16, or more—and permit a flexible format for its shape, Ackley said. A JAB-Code barcode can be printed in the shape of any combination of rectangles, such as a rectangle, a square, or a geometric U-shape.

Another trend that has helped JAB-Codes gain traction in recent years is the widespread use of consumer smartphones that contain the digital color cameras needed to read a multi-colored code, Ackley said. A conventional barcode scanner records data only in black and white, he said.

The new codes' need for specialized equipment—such as color printers and color scanners—may restrict their applications in logistics, Ackley said in an email. "I cannot predict how the scanner market will react to this symbology," he said. "However, I can note that no color symbology has reached wide adoption in the past."

Because of that hurdle, JAB-Code will probably be adopted first in applications where companies are starting from scratch or were already planning a technology refresh, he said. One exception to that rule may be applications where government agencies promote or even require JAB-Code because of its utility in the proposed use on identity documents, he said.

Logistics technology provider Zebra Technologies Corp., a vendor of rugged mobile handheld devices for barcode scanning and other applications, agrees. "There are some significant demands that reading color barcodes places on the scanner design and it is yet to be determined whether a potential increase in data density is worthwhile," Chris Brock, Zebra's senior director for advanced development, said in an email.

One reason is that color image sensors require brighter light to accurately read codes than equivalent monochrome sensors do, stretching their ability to manage heat generation and power consumption, Brock said.

Editor's note: This story was revised on July 22 to include information from Zebra.

About the Author

Ben Ames
Senior Editor
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

More articles by Ben Ames

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