I remember encountering the ugly black-and-white stripes of a barcode for the first time – defacing the front of my favorite magazine. Of course, Mad found a way of dealing with the UPC code by making jokes at its expense. But now, some ground-breaking work at MIT could see the visual blight of barcodes replaced altogether by Bokodes, tiny tenth-of-an-inch optical data tags that can hold thousands of times more information and be read by the camera on your mobile phone.

Whereas a UPC code is really nothing more than a number to help a computer identify a product, Bokodes are capable of actually containing thousands of bits of information. Consisting of an LED covered with a tiny mask and a lens, a Bokode encodes information in the light shining through the mask. The rays of light vary in brightness and angle and, when read by a camera, are instantly decoded.

Apart from being able to provide information, Bokodes also offer the advantages of being “readable” from several meters away (unlike barcodes, which won’t work beyond a foot) and of being legible to any standard digital camera, including those on mobile phones. As a result, almost anyone could find out what the tag contained.

The MIT developers of this technology are positively giddy about the possibilities the Bokode could enable. Products on a shelf could provide consumers with detailed nutrition information, for example, or simply advertise a price reduction. A personal Bokode on a keychain would allow students to identify themselves to a lecturer and to respond to quiz questions. And they could also allow the easy location of, say, one book among thousands on shelves.

But, before you start rejoicing at the thought of ridding the world of those ugly black-and-white stripes, the technology isn’t quite consumer-ready yet. Each Bokode presently costs around USD$5 each, which makes their use prohibitively expensive. But the researchers believe future versions could simply be reflective – like the holograms on credit cards – rather than requiring an active LED light source.

Incidentally, if you'd like to see a very good reason why scientists shouldn't be left to explain their own work, check out MIT's almost incomprehensible video explaining how Bokodes work.

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