Bar Code Scanners Reinventing Shopping Again?

ISBNISBNLast week I wrote about an ethos of surveillance we’ve been cultivating here in the United States. One so rampant that we’re now monitoring US/Mexican border crossings with state sponsored webcams. Even as citizens, we’re being screened at every place outside of our homes: banks, restaurants, bars, you name it.

This got me thinking. If businesses are monitoring us, is there any way that we can monitor them? If we’re being observed to make sure we’re not stealing from stores, is there a way we can monitor stores to make sure they’re not stealing from us?

I was in Target last weekend, thinking that I was getting the most for my dollar by shopping at a discount retail store. I’ll be honest, I love Target.

On this day, I was innocently passing by an aisle when I couldn’t help but overhear a young woman say that she knew “for a fact” that an item she was looking at was cheaper at Wal-Mart.


Though I didn’t catch what the item was, her observation stayed with me. Could something really be cheaper at Wal-Mart and I wouldn’t know it? Have I built my entire opinion of Target upon a foundation of misperceptions?
Bar Code ScannerBar Code Scanner

I don't know, but I've managed to dig up some interesting ideas that have been dormant for a while now. Some great innovations in shopping are just waiting in the bottom of a very big pile, but are nonetheless out there for a good inventor/web programmer to pick out.

One example I found, , found it useful to make an entire database full of every conceivable barcode known to man and beast. While the company went belly-up in the late 90’s, it made some significant strides in bar-code scanning and retention.

Specifically, the company loaded their database with information on each item, product reviews and linked the items to their 350 affiliated vendors. Their idea was to have users scan a barcode at a store and then use their wireless device to track down the best price. This is a darn good idea, except I found no evidence that this was locally driven. For instance, how does it help me to know that something is cheaper online, when I’m at a store and need it now?Invisible Bar CodeInvisible Bar Code

More recent ideas involve companies using bar code technology for nearly every conceivable purpose. Fujitsu has developed a method to make an invisible barcode so that it can be imbedded in pictures. When you see a picture of something you like in a magazine, you can point your wireless device at it and get locations and prices for that item instantly. Pretty cool.

Barcodes have even become useful in homemaking as well. Microwaves have barcode scanners now, so that you never overcook your TV dinner. Scan the package, place it in the microwave, and the machine knows how long to nuke it for just the right taste.

Even oil and livestock might be imbued with DNA barcodes, where product details are encoded molecularly. Leaving the obvious ethical questions aside, this technology is ostensibly being developed in case of an oil spill or an outbreak of mad cow disease – to track down its origins and hold persons accountable.

Suddenly, my moment of clarity at Target looks like it’s something people have been toying with for years.

Expanding on this would be incredibly time consuming for a beginner, but the broad idea of getting real-time comparisons so consumers can plan out their shopping before they jump in their cars is both useful and practical to an experienced developer. It could even get a boost from popular personalities who preach frugality, like everyone who appears on the Today Show.

Look, every store can claim to have the lowest prices, but an independent entity that put bar code technology to good use could verify price claims with real-time quotes. I suppose someone could convince stores voluntarily to comply and send their entire database over, kinda like an address or telemarketing database, except more useful and less painful to consumers.

From what I can tell, was hoping to have bar code scanners embedded in portable devices….like cell phones, mp3 players, anything that can remotely access the internet. When the company went defunct around 2000, the technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today. Maybe the advent of the cameraphone might be the techno-breakthrough barcoding was waiting for and a site like could have made very good use of.

Microwave w/ScannerMicrowave w/ScannerSo, maybe I have more questions for you in this article than I have answers.

Your comments and ideas are welcome. Ideally, an innovation like this, in my humble opinion, should be about price comparison and a hedge on shady pricing practices. In the interim, we might be able to let businesses know that while they may see our faces on all their cameras, they should really be watching our wallets. We are.

Jefferson Smith
Featured Blogger

Sep 9, 2008
by Anonymous

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How about something that lets you use your camera phone to take a picture of a barcode, send it to a server that decodes it, and tells you the prices of local or mail order places.