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Bokode the Future of Barcode: An Interview with MIT Media Labs

Aug 13 2009, 8:00am CDT | by , in News | Technology News

Bokode the Future of Barcode: An Interview with MIT Media Labs
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Last month I wrote an article about bokodes, an interesting new technology that could revolutionize everything from barcodes to street signs. I recently had an opportunity to interview Quinn Smithwick, a member of the Camera Culture Group at the MIT Media Lab. His answers give us an idea of where MIT hopes to take bokodes in the near future, and the impact this new technology could have upon our daily lives.

1. When do you think this technology will be ready for mainstream implementation? What is the current lowest you can get the cost of a working Bokode down to?

I think in some applications it could be used right now. Those applications would be those that the thickness of an active bokode doesn't matter; such as environmental tagging, some AR applications, some crowd gaming apps. The programmers have been working on real-time detection and decoding of the codes. They can definitely get it above 10-15fps now.  So, for some things we just need to write an app.

For other applications that require a thinner active bokode, probably in six months to a year for active bokodes. We're working on some promising designs now.

For thin passive bokodes for packaging... I'm working on holographic bokodes and other thin passive types. For direct contact passive bokodes with large amounts of data, probably sooner rather than later, probably a year or less.  For reading thin passive bokodes at a distance, maybe a bit longer, to make sure we get enough light going back to the camera.

Currently I believe the costs are high because we make them in small quantities. In bulk, it could go down to the tens of cents. We're working on new designs which might cost pennies. For example, I'm working on the holographic bokode, so its just a piece of film, which would be pennies.

2. How exactly do you see Bokodes being placed and used for augmented reality?

There are several AR applications that might be interesting, some for consumers, some for industry.

For consumers, we can unobtrusively tag the world, so that their phones, computers, or other devices know what's in the environment and where. One simple app is to overlay product information (dietary info, recipes, reviews, commercials (think dancing bears attached to the box!) etc) over the packages on the store shelves. Because you can sense multiple bokodes at once, you can compare products.

Similar things can be done in a museum setting, with augmented content that appears relative to the main display, and all without obtrusive signs or text.

Another is the automotive bokode. You could have bokodes in the brake lights, so the trailing cars know position distance, speed, and direction of travel of the cars ahead (without using RADAR or other machine vision techniques), which may enable intelligent collision avoidance (swerve in the opposite direction) or flocks of cars.  Not only can cars be labeled, but also road signs, buildings/structures, even pedestrians, so the car can know what is in its dynamic environment. Signs can have an updateable bokode, so cars know the driving conditions and construction zones. These objects can be labeled for the driver in a heads-up-display or the car can use it for its own purposes (collision avoidance,etc).

For industry, there of course is mo-cap (motion capture), machine/human interactions, autonomous robots in mixed human/machine environments, etc.

3. Will businesses be able to program their Bokodes to give out information about job openings or daily sales?

The bokodes we presented were static, but we have prototypes of bokodes that can be actively updated. But this may be unnecessary considering you can update information over the web, so the bokode would just present an ID and the device would go lookup the latest info. However, if you have instances where you want the information available even when there isn't internet connectivity (say roadsigns/traffic conditions in the autobokode), then an active bokode may make sense (only the sign would need some slow intermittent connectivity).

4. How much information can a Bokode hold or display?

The current bokode uses a 2D data matrix with Reed Solomon error correction. It currently holds megabits of information, whereas barcodes hold kilobits. When used in contact, you can see the entire bokode pattern, so all that info is available. For remote reading, you see a subset, but you can then encode the pattern for distance, angle, etc.

Grace Woo, who is a major contributor to the project, is working on even more efficient codes that take advantage of the bokode properties.

5. One of the most interesting potential uses of Bokodes technology is 'crowd gaming'. How do you envision these games being structured? What will gamers need to participate and how will the store hosting the kiosk profit from it?

For crowd gaming, each person would have their own unique bokode on a FOB key chain. The display would then be able to uniquely identify each player and where they are pointing. You could have other mechanisms which indicate a button push, etc.

There are many examples of multiplayer games, even some currently deployed in malls that use machine vision (blob detection -- soccer games, painting, fish pond, etc). These have adverts and in-game product placement to pay. Others may be just just to attract crowds into the store, etc. (You could also have multi-user information displays, such as interactive store map that multiple people can use at once.)

I think bokodes will have finer position determination than those other crowd games (since the bokode isn't detecting human size blobs), so the games may have even better interaction and more players (like a multi-player maze game -- bomber man, pacman, etc) and hopefully they'll be something a bit more interesting if you have both position and button detection.

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