Bar codes and similar have their place, but there's new players in town that look to make a bold impact in packaging. And that's literally a bold impact using graphics that are as colorful and distinct as they are functional. The utility of these new-generation codes leverages for packaging brand owners the most popular devices in the world whose growth continues to accelerate: smartphones and mobile devices, the former of which as of 2Q2013 saw a 50 percent plus growth rate vs 2012, according to IDC (www.idc.com).
If you thought the quick response (QR) code was the ultimate on-package consumer engagement vehicle, you better think twice. This report highlights two intriguing technologies that push past the square or linear worlds of QR and bar codes by layering in another aspect over functionality that's lacking in most coding symbologies: visual appeal.
One way this is done is the Visual QR code (shown above) being offered by Visualead. The tech takes the square and ubiquitous, if not unappealing, QR code and stands it on its head as a high-interest visual element that can complement a package design scheme.
The company's patent-pending image processing system creates QR codes that convert any image or graphic into functioning, aesthetically pleasing codes designed to engage consumers. Creating a Visual QR Code with the use of the company's Visual QR Code Generator is promoted as easy and fast, taking less than a minute. The company has introduced the Gen 2 version of its code and is planning further refinements that increasingly immerse the code within the graphics design.
According to Nevo Alva, the company's CEO, the timing is ripe for the technology.
"It's becoming clear that there's a growing need to connect the offline physical world to the online mobile world," Alva says. "Once this problem is solved, brand owners can enjoy endless opportunities for reaching out to customers and increasing their engagement and loyalty. We provide a Do-It-Yourself web platform-based on our proprietary technology-that allows any business to quickly merge QR codes into any design or advertisement with just a few simple steps. This creates a new branded and effective Visual QR Code that can be read by any existing QR code reader."
Alva, who notes that close to one billion users have already downloaded a QR reader into their devices, feels the company's tech can build on consumers' familiarity with the standard QR code.
"When you add in the creative aspects and branding opportunities that arrive with Visual QR codes, you realize that we've created the most effective bridging solution that exists today," he offers.
The technology is already gaining traction: Visualead's platform is being used by familiar brands and for Server Message Blocks (SMBs, which direct their device toward an online location)-more than 200,000 SMBs to date-to lead potential customers to an optimized mobile experience.
Visualead can handle mass production solutions to create millions of unique Visual QR Codes at once, a capability that is highly appropriate to the packaging industry, Alva believes.
"We have several customers that have been using these solutions as part of their packaging and delivery, such as snacks packaging, delivery packaging [Customer www.healthfirst.com generates branded Visual QR Codes en masse]. We definitely see the packaging segment as an emerging market for customer interaction and engagement."
As one example, Alva points to Danone, which has more than 60 million unique QR Codes on all of their products (see www.Packagingdigest.com/danoneqr).
Functionality that's upgradeable
The tech offers much in the way of upgradeable functionality. "Each and every Visualead QR Code gets a new form and brand and can become a symbol or indicate information about the product or delivery," Alva explains. "Also, we can track the codes and gather a lot of valuable information about the scanning location, operating system, time of day, etc. Furthermore, our clients can manage their campaigns in real time, change the content of the codes and conduct A/B test performance."
From the beginning, Alva recognized packaging as an important and unique step in the interaction between brands and customers with incredible potential. He feels that Visual QR code application can be used to attract, extend and amplify the engagement between the consumer and the brand. "Visual QR codes are easily created and merged into the packaging design and are great space-savers as they eliminate the need to have separate space for the design and the code," Alva adds.
Graphics options are extensive. Brand owners can create a Visual QR code of any size, with the only limitations related to minor considerations such as the code's minimum size (1 inch) and for texture or surface distortion. The Visual QR Code supports the regular QR code standard and does not require any special app to be scanned.
Alva sees the hurdle to adoption as educational rather than technical.
"The current restriction in this market is convincing the customer to scan the QR code and, thus, connect with the brand," Alva says. "The success of this step depends on two main questions:
"One, what incentive does the brand have for its customers to scan the code?
Two, how does the brand demonstrate to its customers what they should expect to receive from scanning the code, especially when on-packaging real estate is limited?
"Once brands understand the importance of finding effective solutions for these questions, customers will be encouraged to scan more and their loyalty to the brands will increase."
Whatever the future holds, Alva has more confidence in the increasing viability of packaging as the vehicle to deliver an interactive experience to the consumer than he does print magazines, another popular landing place for QR codes.
"I believe that a package, as opposed to magazines, will always exist because people will always consume products and those products will always have to get to them somehow," he says. "I predict that, in the near future, product packaging is going to be the main contact point of the brand with its customer. I believe that this will be a critical point of contact with the customer and the brand's goal will be to catch the customers and lead them into the online world, as well as continue to communicate with them through social networks and other online services. Our goal is to provide these brands with the ability to create a memorable and compelling point of contact with the customer that will also be an effective bridge to the online world-all with the use of standardized solutions."
Colorbit: A colorful code replacement
Colorbit is a color-based automatic identification technology developed by B-Core Inc. of Tokyo. Using the patented code configuration and decoding software, it is possible to read using a color camera up to several hundred tagged items simultaneously by capturing a single image, with sub-second decoding speeds. The solution is suitable for inventory management, asset management, quality assurance, anti-counterfeiting and other applications, particularly on difficult-to-label surfaces and in environments where using traditional bar code labels or RFID tags may be challenging.
One of the differentiating features of the Colorbit technology is its flexibility when it comes to design. Colorbit strings are made up of areas, elements or "blobs" of three different colors, typically red, blue and green. The shape and dimensions of these elements are flexible. The elements can be arranged in lines, spirals, zig-zag patterns or whatever else suits the needs or creative urges of the designer.
"We allow for the use of any contiguous elements where their size remains within a 1:10 ratio," explains Chris Anderson, managing partner of Colorbit. "A Colorbit string could be made up of a line of colored ducks, a line of dots, a line of differently shaped flowers or nearly anything else you can imagine. Our requirements are simple: the elements must touch, and the line that is created with them cannot branch or cross."
The use of whites, grays and blacks and colors that fall outside the RGB hues makes it possible to provide the effect of branching and crossing without actually rendering the string unreadable, opening up yet more possibilities.
A Colorbit string can be printed with any three-color printing technology. Most commonly used are on-demand or continuous inkjet and color laser printers, but thermal transfer, offset or any other printing technology may be employed.
"The resolution of the printer is not critical as it might be with other encoding technologies because we apply no special metrics to lines or spaces or other marks within a Colorbit identification string," says Anderson, who sees the advantages of Colorbit encoding as fourfold:
1. Colorbit isn't nearly as fussy about the quality of the marking as are most other encoding technologies. It does not depend upon any line/space ratios. And it can readily cope with a great deal of distortion caused by packaging that isn't "flat" and images degraded by scuffing in transit;
2. It has the ability to read many codes in one shot. Colorbit has demonstrated the ability to read several hundred codes in one-third second with an inexpensive web camera and cheap laptop. Where packaging or master pack lists can be provided within the view of a camera or smartphone, Colorbit save a great deal of time reading bar or other codes individually. In that respect, it is similar to RFID but better as the next attribute indicates.
3. The tech can identify by visual feedback on a PC monitor or smartphone the exact location of any specifically requested item within the field of view-something that cannot be done with RFID; and
4. It provides far more flexibility in design; the form and design of a Colorbit code needn't look like a code at all. It provides a great deal of leeway in design that appeals to industrial designers.
This last item provides a clear benefit from an aesthetics standpoint, and also allows for embedding codes in ways so as to make the code disappear into the overall package art design.
One hurdle is that the technology requires a "captive" environment, and therefore is relegated to "controlled" secondary packaging applications. Because the Colorbit code depends upon access to a color camera of some sort, primary packaging at point-of-sale has yet to adopt the technology, Anderson acknowledges. However, they have had interest in primary packaging for non-retail identification purposes.
"As one example, where serialized product is involved, the use of Colorbit-encoded serial numbers makes possible some interesting anti-counterfeiting and gray-market detection solutions," Anderson says. "I can envision a smartphone application for field sales reps using Colorbit where spot checks of inventory in the distribution chain are greatly simplified."
He feels that widespread adoption at retail would be a huge tipping point for the technology.
"Were that to occur, we're only some firmware away from being able to replace or augment the entire UPC/EAN bar code marking scheme," he says. "Since Colorbit is equally capable of delivering the same set of digits to the back end of a system, it's only a matter of being able to decode color in a Colorbit identifier."
Anderson relates that Sato (www.sato.co.jp) has taken the lead in Japan as a licensee heavily involved in the country's labeling business. Nippon Express is employing the technology to prepare special labels for packages using the one-shot reading to simultaneously read codes on many packages at once. He reports that, for the time being, secondary packaging remains the main focus-there is an increased interest in marking directly on unbleached paperboard/corrugated in the secondary market. The incentive in this submarket is that users have been experiencing some difficulties with traditional coding due to lack of contrast of black ink on a brown substrate that they believe may be improved by use of this color-coding technology.
The application requires what Anderson calls a "wrapper" around the decoding technology found using a Colorbit-supplied software development kit (SDK) for the customer's preferred platform. It provides the "hooks" between the user interface, and possibly a connectivity interface, and along with the company's image capturing and decoding algorithms.
According to Anderson, most applications fall into one of two categories: either the user will be capturing any and all codes found within the field of view, or will be looking for a specific code within the field of view. He maintains that it as easy to capture 200 Colorbit codes and store or transmit them as it is to have the Colorbit decoder locate one Colorbit code within a group of 200. In both cases, the application will typically highlight the desired result on the screen to provide positive visual feedback to the user. Auditory feedback can be used as well.
The choice of hardware also depends upon the use model. The technology decodes the Colorbit strings that it encounters in a video image. A smartphone with camera or a PC with a high-resolution web camera can serve as the "reader" portion of the system. The infrastructure required is no different from that of other identification technologies. The numbers generated from Colorbit strings will be treated in the same manner as if they were those being decoded from an Interleaved 2 of 5 or UPC bar code. The ancillary hardware involved is the same. The only difference is that instead of using a typical bar code scanner or RFID reader, Colorbit uses a color camera to gather the encoded information.
Currently, Colorbit is supplying a demo application for iPhone/iPod platforms that can demonstrate the capabilities of the technology.
Where is this heading?
"Ah, that we knew!" responds Anderson. "Rather than telling the marketplace where this technology can best be employed, we've found that the marketplace has been telling us. One of the more remarkable successes has been in the library industry where the Colorbit marking of book spines is saving endless hours of reviewing the stacks for misplaced books. The Colorbit encoding allows a staff member to sweep entire stacks with a smartphone in minutes, rather than manually reading the individual alphanumeric codes one by one. That is just one example of an application that ‘came to us,' rather than the other way around.
"However, we continue to focus on the advent of color image capture at point-of-sale. If this comes to pass, the end-to-end capabilities for packaging are unlimited. We believe we have a superior encoding technology that is both more robust than others, but will definitely appeal to the industrial designers who tell us that they hate having a bar code interrupt the flow of their artwork! The ability to discreetly embed Colorbit codes in nonobvious ways has been met with enthusiasm."