MIT’s Bokode: A Tiny Barcode Replacement That’s Chockablock With Data

MIT scientists have devised a new coding standard that can be read from digital cameras, and will be used in everything from augmented reality to motion capture.


Barcodes are tremendously useful, but they’re also exceedingly dumb: They provide information only to the person with the scanner. These days, we expect mountains of information about our products, from the exact place they came from, to how safe they are and their carbon footprint. So MIT researchers have developed a new standard, called Bokode, which would enable you to use your phone to access a slew of info about a product on the shelf. It’s the tiny, lit hole you see in the center of the image above, amidst all the current barcode versions.


The system was invented by a team led by Ramesh Raskar of the MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture group, who’ll be presenting next month in New Orleans at SIGGRAPH (the leading confab for display technology and interface design). Rather than being a simple flat image, like a barcode or a QR code, it uses a light beam, whose brightness and angle are encoded with information. The tag itself is tiny–about the size of the @ symbol in a keyboard. But it contains thousands of bits of data. Currently, the tags comprise a lens and an LED-light source, and each one costs $5. But the price should fall below a nickle a pop, by using holograms of the sort you see on credit cards. Rather than requiring a special laser for reading, the Bokode can be read by any digital camera, and from several feet away.

What are the applications? For starters, Bokodes in the grocery store could be programmed with complete nutrition information; you could then use an app on your phone to organize it into an healthy eating schedule, for example. But the inventors propose even wilder uses: Say the tag is placed in a keychain held by a professor at the front of a class. Students could then scan it from their seats, and access an interactive graph or animation, or a real-time quiz that would help track how well the class is following the lecture. Museums could use them to encode information about exhibits. The business uses are just as varied, from presentations to conferences, where you could use it as an ID system. They might even be used in video games by doing motion capture without any markers, since the Bokode device can provide such precise information about exactly where a user is in space, to within a tenth of a degree.

[Via MIT press release]


About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.