Tiny Optical Tags Could Replace Barcodes

Bokodes, a new optical data storage technology, could help hasten the era of ubiquitous computing, in which every object can be linked to the Internet.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

July 27, 2009

2 Min Read

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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About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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