Barcodes Enter The Matrix In 2027

Beep. We’ve come a long way since June 26, 1974 when the first bar code was scanned at a grocery store in Troy, Ohio. That legendary pack of Juicy Fruit proved that even the smallest of items could now carry numbers associated with inventory and price.

By now, we’re all too familiar with this sound as self-checkouts have become the norm. Whereas you yourself could at one time literally check out during the transaction, you must now be on your toes and play find the bar code on every item.

What does the consumer gain from the bar code today? Practically nothing, except the chance to purchase, and potentially return, the item without too much hassle. Well, the non-profit outfit that runs the bar code world — GS1 US — wants to change all that. By 2027, they are confident that all 1D bar codes will be replaced with 2D bar codes similar to QR codes. Why?

Sunrise, Sunset: 2027

In a worldwide initiative called Sunrise 2027, the entire retail industry will sunset 12-digit barcodes and use a 2D web-enabled version going forward. The new 2D barcodes can store much more information than the lowly 1D version, which has the potential to benefit both consumers and store owners.

The 2D barcode will “take you on an experience that the brand wants you to have.”

— Carrie Wilkie, SVP of standards and technology at GS1 US

Should the consumer be so inclined, they’ll be able to access a wealth of information about the product using the new barcode — everything from an ingredients list to recipes, potential allergens, promotions, and recycling information for the container.

The barcodes will open the doors for extras like loyalty points, coupons, games, you name it. And just think — clothes and other textiles could finally have legible washing instructions, so we don’t have to rely on those ancient glyphs.

Stores will be able to respond much faster to product recalls and even do things like flag foods that are approaching the sell-by date so they can pull them and sell them at a discount. They also expect major improvements when it comes to inventory control on the back end.

A Brief History of Barcodes

Barcodes were created to remove the human element of logistics, or at least lessen the burden. The history of the barcode begins almost 100 years ago with a system to keep track of railroad cars.

In the 1930s, a group of Westinghouse engineers invented an automated card sorting system that used bars printed on paper. These bars were read by a photo-electric cell, which ultimately decided which trap door that particular piece of paper would fall through to be sorted.

The first barcodes that resemble what we see today came about in the 1940s as a way to speed up the process at the grocery store checkout. Graduate student Bernard Silver and his friend Norman Woodland created a bar code system that used Morse code, but lengthened the dots and dashes vertically to form bars.

Although they came up with a way of reading the barcodes and even got IBM interested in the idea in the early 1950s, it was ultimately decided that the technology to make it all work just wasn’t there yet.

The solution came in the 1960s when George Laurer was assigned the task at Research Triangle Park. His team created the UPC — a bar code that is essentially the one we all know and love today — and which is about to be phased out.

By now, we’re also all familiar with QR codes, but did you know that they’re almost 30 years old? Quick Response codes were created in 1994 by Japanese company Denso Wave to keep track of cars and parts in the auto industry. By adding a second dimension, much more data can be stored, with checksums and redundancy to boot.

2D Or Not 2D

Between now and 2027, we’ll likely see a long period of transition wherein products have both types of barcodes. In the meantime, GS1 US has released a barcode capabilities kit so that retailers can evaluate their POS systems. They’ve also issued a Getting Started guide (PDF) that essentially amounts to a) evaluate readiness by scanning a large number of example barcodes and b) upgrade POS system if it doesn’t pass 2D muster.

According to the press release, early testing indicated that scanning 2D barcodes and reading/ingesting the data are two different things, which presents another wrinkle.

Already In the Matrix

But the change is already happening. The first company to use 2D barcodes in US stores is Puma. For now, the barcode goes to a link that tells all about Puma’s sustainability efforts and what materials are in that pair of shoes.

Those touch screen Coke machines that have taken over fast food places in the last decade or so? Those now feature a QR code that lets you concoct your beverage from your phone so you don’t have to touch that screen.

In the rest of the world, Australia and New Zealand are using 2D barcodes to provide freshness data for deli and meat counter products. And a retailer in Japan is already using 2D barcodes to give discounts on demand for foods with three or fewer days of shelf life remaining.

While this transition could slow things down for a good long while, it sounds like we’ll be better for it in the long run. At least most people don’t stand there and write a check anymore.

80 thoughts on “Barcodes Enter The Matrix In 2027

  1. To be “take[en] you on an experience that the brand wants you to have.” is pretty much the last thing I would ever want. This seems like a signifigant downgrade.

    1. Absolutely. Also:

      >everything from an ingredients list to recipes, potential allergens, promotions, and recycling information for the container. The barcodes will open the doors for extras like loyalty points, coupons, games, you name it.

      Packaging already does these things just fine, and I don’t even have to take my phone out of my pocket for them. Personally I can’t see the appeal here.

        1. I think that’s an interesting question. How much of a barrier to this kind of information will a customer put up with before just putting a product back on the shelf? Putting ingredients, allergens, and nutritional information on the label is law in many countries, but if it isn’t, how many customers will bother following the QR code, how many people will buy it anyway, and how many people will just buy something else which puts that stuff on the label?

          A lot of this stuff is also done just as well with QR codes, though getting customers to use them must be another thing. My parents visited me last weekend, and when we were organising lunch mum pointed to a QR code on a jar which apparently led to recipes, and asked me if they were any good. I’d hardly even noticed it.

          1. … and if you have to follow the QR code, unless you’re an unusual person who uses privacy tools, then you’re trading your identity for the information. And there’s nothing to stop them from trying to keep you from using those privacy tools and claiming some kind of “security” excuse for doing so. Of course your identity, and all the *other* information you’ve tied to it, will then be used to badger you.

            I wouldn’t be surprised if they started lobbying to be allowed to leave the information off of the labels just so they can track people. “It’s on the Web. We even put a link on the package. Anybody can get it.”

        2. I dont even HAVE a phone capable of reading a whatever-code because of privacy reasons, so if they replace all this text with a code i have a problem. I don’t care if the “thing” they scan for checkout is 1D or 2D or 3D, but i don’t want to NEED a phone and i don’t want to be tracked by anybody. As other people below have said, how will this stuff be abused (because it WILL BE) for tracking and other nasty purposes (for our safety and comfort of course *rolleyes*)?

          1. If you’re on Hackaday, you can learn Morse code (if you don’t know it already).
            If you can understand Morse code, you can learn to read 1D barcodes.
            If you can read 1D barcodes, you can apply yourself and get your head around 2D barcodes too.
            Simples! :P

          2. Or… enable privacy protections in your browser. They’re even on by default in most browsers now (except obviously chrome, whose business is collecting data).

        3. Agreed, though having this QR code could in theory at least allow you to track back through the chain all the way to the producer of the ingredients or other similar extra details that could never reasonably be printed on the package. And if that was a legal requirement it could be very good for keeping false/misleading branding in check.

          So your ‘locally sourced’ tag line on the package even of something like a ready to cook lasagne could actually be tracked back and you find 90% of the ingredients came from one of the Spanish greenhouses with only the one ingredient they had in the small print being from your ‘local’ farmer, who isn’t exactly local either being from the other end of your nation…

      1. As someone with multiple ingredient sensitivities and uncommon allergies it would be pretty nice to point my phone at the barcode and be warned about it containing something I can’t eat, rather than having to re-read the ingredients listing 20 times just to make sure (especially since the ingredients I have trouble with tend to be buried in the “long string of unpronounceable syllables that all run together” section).

        Obviously it shouldn’t replace the printed ingredients listing, but as a supplement, I’m totally on board.

        1. This requires a standard format of data for allergy info, rather than a URL to a corporate website which might have the info in a PDF you can download.

          If they did it, it’d be great. But I’m not holding my breath. Nothing is stopping them putting allergy info in a QR code already.

          1. UPC aren’t always unique enough.
            The same UPC code can be attached to products that contain differences, sometimes relevant sometimes not.

            Unless you can find an explicit statement saying otherwise, it would not surprise me if a product manufactured in an environment with peanuts and one manufactured in a clean environment had the same UPC while having the “may contain peanuts” on the label only when manufactured in one of the facilities.

            (For non-food items I know of dozens of products over the years with the same UPC; Red or Blue playing cards are one example. Same UPC regardless of color)

        1. Not exactly. There are enough IDs for every variant, but not for every individual product, so you cannot give every product a unique ID and you cannot fit expiration date and other meta data in it. That said it is still very useful as a database index. My food app can scan bar codes of products and track calories and macros.

        1. Would be nice, but in reality the codes will contain just URLs to some pointless marketing. Unless they expand the standard, there are no data fields for ingredient lists or micro/macro element values.

      2. While I agree a product experience sounds like more useless advertising, I think the additional data is a good thing. So for now its a complete saturation of data. You can shop with your phone now or in some shops they give you a hand scanner.

        So, a future use case might include allergy identification and notification. That meaning the device (phone or other) identify allergens as you scan them. So you mark on the app or whatever it is you’re scanning you have an allergy to shellfish, when you scan an item that has that as an ingredient it pops up with a warning that you have to dismiss so you dont have to check labels all the time (and believe me you do). I see this as being a huge time saver and for some a lifesaver. There are a lot of things that contain allergens that aren’t obvious and some products that change their recipe without ever notifying you in any discernible way that they’ve added an allergen in this bottle compared to the one 2 weeks ago (or a recipe change at all).

      3. Worse yet, I would assume these QR codes would send you to the web. What do you do if you don’t have a cell signal to follow the link? Worse yet, I envision a bad actor slapping on stickers that send people to malware. Sort of a new take on credit card skimming type of thing. If information is actually IN the QR code that is one thing. But if it relies mostly or fully on web connectivity it makes no sense.

    2. Yeah, seriously, fuck the brand. Anything the brand wants me to see is probably intended to mislead me anyway… right up to the limit of the law and not infrequently beyond. I mean, the FIRST EXAMPLE is obvious greenwashing.

      … and I don’t want to have a “relationship” with a goddamned pack of gum.

      But it’s not really a downgrade, exactly, as long as I don’t have to interact with any of that garbage to just buy the product.

    3. Agreed. It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors to distract you from the tracking that will be associated with accessing any of these barcodes. I don’t deny that some optimistic soul came up with a lot of these ideas thinking that they would bring about world peace, but that is not how they will be used.

      1. I think that plan was talked about for the last 40 years or so. For some reason that never makes it past a pilot test. Grocery checkout is a royal PITA. However this is about having the consumer scan the code which of course link to the manufacturer so they can market directly to you. It has nothing to do with what is good for the consumer at all.

    1. >>And how much invasive tracking, analytics, and marketing are going to be baked into this standard?
      As much as the companies, advertisers, and hackers-in-the-bad-sense can possibly get away with, with more to follow as soon as they can figure out how to do it.

      Also, I’m pretty sure one of the ways consumers will pay for “everything from an ingredients list to recipes, potential allergens, promotions, and recycling information for the container” is by being forced to view advertising before they can access the information they’re after.

      I see this development simply as the kleptocrats looking to steal more from us than they are already taking.

    2. If it remains just a barcode in effect there is none of that inherent to the printed blob itself – you can read them by eye/hand if you are to decode them or use any other offline tool to read the data on the barcode.

      Though it might well just be a ‘www.stuff.somewhere/ID’ text string, which does you no good until you actually go to that link, at which point tracking and marketing can start to happen again…

    3. I expect that the default application will upload location information from the phone as well to track store locations as well as home locations for demographics.

      But people can always just capture location of the website URL’s, stockpile them and scrape the websites (using tor) for offline accesses to screw with the data harvesting.

    4. Precisely. The translation of all this: You will have to install an app, get your data gaped open by analytics, and view inane advertising to view the ingredients list or even price of something in the near future. I’m still pissed that ever since covid you have to get out your phone and scan a dumb QR code (that NOBODY liked or had organic engagement with before covid) just to order a beer or see the menu at a food stand. They have been pushing that crap for years and won’t ever take no for an answer.

  2. How could 2D barcodes lead to more readable washing instructions on clothing? Or would it instead be a barcode requiring an external device, unscanable after 20 washes, that takes you to a URL that 404’s a year or two after the item was manufactured?

  3. “What does the consumer gain from the bar code today?”
    My food app can scan barcodes of food I eat and track calories and macros. Pretty useful.

    Since there are different categories and different encodings for different things and the number of digits is large enough for a database index it means we won’t run out of them soon. So I think they are here to stay for a long time. Especially for products with long shelf lives. But of course there are limitations. You cannot give every item a UID or add any meta data. If you want to encode meta data, a UID or a long URL in the code itself you would need to switch to a 2D code. It opens up many possibilities. Especially if there will be one standard that will cover everything.

    They use safety as a main reason (allergies, recalls, expiration date etc.), but of course there are privacy concerns. Do we want to connect everything with everything without even an opt out? You can track roughly where and when a product was bought solely based on the code. This can be used to spy on people. If the codes are URL based websites can use fingerprinting/tracking cookies to create a profile of you. Will the meta data of the product you buy be added to your bank transaction when you pay electronically? If so our bank can know a lot more about us too.
    Before we decide to ban something that works, we need to set clear boundaries for the newer alternative.

    1. >we need to set clear boundaries for the newer alternative.
      You know, boundaries (read: laws and such stuff) can and will change with time. Sometimes it’s a good thing, but regarding (less and less) privacy and so on it isn’t.

      >Especially if there will be one standard that will cover everything.
      *insert xkcd here*

    2. This is what happened to me several years ago.
      I received a notice from Sam’s Club that a OTC medicine I had purchased a couple of years earlier was being recalled. The notice included the Lot Numbers of the recalled medicine. Some of the medicine was still in our cabinet, but the Lot Number was different.
      So, Sam’s Club had been keeping track of every purchase we had made,
      in this case it worked to our benefit.
      But, I still hate Google’s guts.

  4. I imagine QR is easier to read under varying circumstances with greater accuracy. Combine with blockchain and one can have a cradle to grave on all products making it easier to track down food problems.

      1. @C said: “Cradle to grave tracking of all products every person on the planet buys. The CCP is salivating.”

        Cradle to grave tracking – that’s what the inevitable Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) will give us. The 2D barcode just makes it easier to implement the CBDC.

      2. If you live in that society there already are plenty of ways. e.g. ring cameras and air-tags, etc. Take note however as the NSA found out storage and finding the needle in the haystack can be a big pain.

  5. Privacy apart, i wonder if QR-Codes are also devils work and/or emit dangerous radiation or stuff like this. Because you know, there are people who really believe that barcodes are/do so. If i remember correctly sometimes you can “neutralize” the effet by putting a horizontal line over the barcode. I even saw this done already by the manufcaturer when the barcode was printed on the package. WTF?

  6. The laser seems to have some trouble scanning with multiple passes reading the code on a package of wrinkled ramen, but now it’s gonna be picture perfect in one pass? Wrinkles! Wow.
    I never sync things and have multiple extortion (loyalty) cards with Kroger.

    1. 2D scanners are far more different and expensive than 1D scanners, because they are real (2D) cameras, so no laser needed (but you can still put one). With enough resolution, you can far more easily scan a 2D barcode because there is no orientation problem, it’s only standard computer vision. QR codes also have more redundancy than barcodes.

  7. As a Test and Validation Engineer, I enjoy thinking about the ways in which pristinly engineered lab-grown ideas and technologies get broken, misused, or otherwise totally effed-up when they enter this weird thing called real life.

    IRL there is no shortage of times a UPC was destroyed by damp, scratched, or obscured. This leads to the fall back (for the cashier or yourself) which is to enter the numeric equivalent of the UPC printed below it.

    Now enter 2D codes… I’m sure we’re all going to have fun entering all those digits represented in a 2D code everytime they cannot scan! I can see it now, lines of angry people behind you, you’re sweating and reentering numbers only to find out you just accidently bought 8lbs of lutefisk. At least that also comes with “an experience the brand wants you to have.”

    Unfortunately this will happen far more often, as we will lose the “robustness” offered by the second dimension in current UPCs, that currently provides some redundancy if an obfuscation is mostly horizontal.

    1. This is a great point. You really have to jack up a bar code to make it not work. Wear, scuffs, scratches etc are pretty well tolerated.
      With a 2-D code I wonder- how tolerant are they of damage? And if damaged, then what?

    2. The 2d ones have redundancy built in. You can usually cut out up to 30% of the qr code and still scan it. Amount of redundancy is one of the parameters in generating the codes. They’re actually more robust than the 1d ones which have 1 digit of error detection, but no error correction.

      1. I didn’t look up the spec but i would bet my last pack of gum that the new 2D codes will have some number of assigned bits (analogous the the old UPC, but perhaps a few digits longer) and some number of user bits which are ignored by the market scanner, but contain all the new data (or links thereto) that make the new system so much “better”.

        So don’t worry about that checkout worker and their weary fingers, the part they have to type in when the scan fails won’t be much (if at all) longer than the current code.


  8. There are already plenty of 2d barcode standards, how is introducing another going to speed the adoption of 2d barcodes. I mean QR codes are everywhere and my ID has a PDF417 2D barcode.

  9. So we are transitioning from a self contained system to one that requires that some cloud server exists and is functional. Barcodes created sixty years ago scan today just like they did then. QR codes that only link to a web “experience” will NOT function in the same tomorrow as the ones we now use. But… progress… amirite?

    1. Self-contained in the sense that reading the book is required to get out some of the information an ISBN lookup would normally give one. e.g. reviews, etc.

  10. As far as I know the GS1 organsiation will charge the companies for a lease (subset) of their barcodes – just another money making model that is promoted without real additional benefit.

  11. I will be shocked if GS1 ever implements this in a useable way. Their GTINs are already a wreck and they have no idea how data works. I deal with hundreds of company’s millions of products and GS1’s product API regularly. It’s all a mess. Companies create their own invalid GTINs all the time. Even when the company tries to do it right, GS1 doesn’t have primary keys in their database, so they screw up the data themselves. I’ve even run across GLNs (GS1 company identifiers) that have been issued to multiple companies.

    GS1 is a complete disaster and barcodes only work out of dumb luck. The logic behind how GTINs work is sound, but it’s handled by bureaucrats at GS1 and bureaucrats at manufacturers and distributors who don’t have any understanding of it.

    1. Your comment seems closest to the ground truth. And you touched on a reality that programmers, etc. know well: “non profit” does not mean “open” or even transparent, and definitely not “free” as in beer _or_ speech (like FRAND being none of the things in the acronym).

      I share excitement about data, but the implementation will be as messed up and exclusionary as we expect.

  12. Lot of unwarranted paranoia here.

    A barcode is read only, and can’t track you or market to you UNLESS you deliberately scan it AND your scanner app is configured to open a URL without consent. A barcode doesn’t require a cloud to deliver its self contained data to you. And it isn’t a part of any blockchain.

    The new barcodes will be able to include a lot of optional data fields like lot number (for recalls), sell-by dates, hazmat identification, weight and quantity (deli and produce), serial numbers (electronics), and much needed space for larger manufacturer’s ID and product code fields. They can include data important to the manufacturer, the supply chain, and the retailer. But even a 2D barcode is still limited by printing accuracy, which severely constrains the amount of data it can deliver. They can’t hold all the information you might want, like nutrition or ingredients, or an MSDS.

    What they will do is prevent the cashier from selling you dangerous items like expired baby food or recalled cans of tuna.

    A barcode doesn’t give retailers magical marketing powers they don’t already have. However, if you agree to identify yourself with a “loyalty card” and they’re tracking your purchases anyway, they’ll know to contact you in case any of your products are recalled in the future.

    1. I wouldn’t call this paranoia. If you NEED the informations behind the code like allergenes that might no longer be printed in clear text (or really small letters or …) you MUST scan the code and open the URL. And there goes the tracking devil. You might be able to reduce the amount of data by configuring your smartphone (which is already owned by Google/Apple/whatever big data collector), but you cannot get around. And i am totally sure there are people who will get really creative for forcing the customer to scan that damn code.

      Regarding expiration dates: Sorry, but that’s considering people are stupid. First at least in my country the supermarkets already regularely check the expiration dates on the stuff they sell and it’s printed in plain text so you can just check by yourself when grabbing the item (and check again before eating/opening it). It’s simple, it doesn’t need stupid technology and it works. Of course, there is a minor risk, but yeah, sorry, at some point you just have to life with it. Don’t trade convenience for privacy/liberty/…! Uh and also rotten thuna probably smells horrible so you won’t eat it? (I don’t eat thuna at all.)

      However i agree regarding the loyalty cards, these things are spy engines on there own.

      1. Stores sell products not just to you, but to 100% of the public. That includes the 50% of people that are of below-average intelligence, and the fraction of those that are functionally illiterate.

        You might be protected by your vastly superior intellect, but recall and expiration data will help prevent tragedies from striking those people who are not similarly blessed.

        For example, there’s a nationwide recall that just went out a few days ago for salmonella-tainted baking flour. The contamination is undetectable to humans, but that doesn’t make it less harmful. The company is telling people to return bags labeled with specific “better-by” dates. If they had the new barcodes in place, any customers who had used the loyalty program would be able to get notified that they bought a tainted bag.

        And if you’ve ever had salmonella poisoning before, you’d know how much you’d appreciate the notification.

  13. Marketing dept. absolutely going ape-shit trying to hype up QR codes.. it’s all just text that a machine can read easily. It doesn’t DO anything different than old-school barcodes except let you have other characters than numbers in there and more of them. Everything else is just software and marketing wank.

  14. “What does the consumer gain from the bar code today? Practically nothing, except the chance to purchase, and potentially return, the item without too much hassle.”

    Well, if you never had to wait in a queue for the cashier to manually type in the price of every single item in the grocery cart then you might think that. When the cashier made a typing mistake and they had to argue with the customer back and forth for 10 minutes to sort it out used to be really hilarious.

    Or if you think that your time is worthless (of zero value) then you might think that too.

    But I believe that the time saving from the quicker processing at the cashier is a big gain for the consumers. And that is before we consider the quick self checkout cash registers, which can be even faster.

    I myself do not find any amusement in having to idly wait in a queue, but hey, to everyone its own…

  15. Having been employed for many years by a company that manufactures and repairs barcode printers and scanners. I have been getting more involved in RFID printers and scanners. Barcodes are not dead! But I can’t see the point of them when RFID is far more versatile.

  16. Some recent advances in optics lately with flexible piezo actuated polymer lenses now makes it possible to have a camera module that can read QR codes from 10cm to 20m in an instant. (Honeywell EX30)
    I understand the great benefits for warehouses bit it is a bit scary that if like coca cola puts uniqe ids on each bottle they can track who bougt each bottle and where they drink it. 🫣

    1. I don’t see that being an issue. I work with food distributors. They are extremely picky about what data is shared with manufacturers especially about who buys what. They’re all convinced that if a mfr learns who is buying their product, they’ll go around the distributor and sell to them directly. Neither the distributor, nor the stores buying from them care about the mfr codes on the products. Scanning them just isn’t part of their process, they have their own codes for selling and they’re terrible at tracking any data. In your scenario, Coca Cola would have to somehow convince customers to scan the bar codes and tell them where they bought it.

  17. A producer can alter the product web page content at will. There will be no proof of any wrongdoing unless saves that page, and probably will be banned by some filter and copyright. They can even cheat to authorities by displaying different versions of the same page depending on visitor IP or other info! Remeber dieselgate?

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