How the barcode changed the way we shop – and how Amazon is doing it again
It's been 40 years since the first supermarket scanned and sold a product with a barcode and over a decade since our phones became capable of reading them. But now, Amazon's Firefly tech uses your phone's camera and microphone to identify any book, song, TV show, film, product or tin of soup you care to put in front of it, just by "looking" at it. Could we finally bid the barcode bye-bye?
The O2 Gurus take a look back at the tech that knows what's what, from the earliest barcodes and onwards to the future potential of Firefly.
How it all began: the barcode
1952 - Before the barcode
Pre-barcode, supermarkets weren't so super – really, they were just markets because it was impossible to keep track of so many products when each product code had to be manually punched into a till. In 1952 the first patent for a barcode was granted to a visual Morse code that eventually became the barcode we know today.
1974 – Barcodes hit the shelves
It took another twenty-two years for the technology to catch up, but in 1974 the first consumer product was scanned and sold using a barcode in a shop in Ohio. The product? A packet of chewing gum, which you can now see on display in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC – the first barcoded product to be sold in the UK was, fittingly, a box of tea bags.
1991 – The gamification of the barcode
But it wasn't just shops that could scan barcodes. In 1991, Epoch released a console called The Barcode Battler. Now a toy of near-mythical status among people of a certain age, the Battler let you scan barcodes on every day products to create characters and power-ups that you then used to battle other players.
2002 – The rise of the smartphone scanner
Rather more useful to the general populace is the fact that you can scan most barcodes using your smartphone's camera and a barcode-reader app; this way you can check if a product is cheaper to buy online than in the shop, or create wishlists to come back to later.
Alternative realities: QR codes
1994 – QR codes invented in Japan
Short for Quick Response Code, the QR code gained a certain amount of popularity as smartphones became more common. Like a more graphical barcode, the QR Code is used more for marketing than actual shopping. It lets you open a URL by scanning it with your phone's camera and can contain contact information that is automatically saved on to your phone when you scan it.
2002 – Smartphones make Augmented Reality a reality
The most interesting use for QR codes is to launch an augmented reality, though. That means you could scan a QR code on a packet to see what's inside it without opening it, or overlay decorating ideas over an existing living room.
No checkout required: RFID tags
1983 - first patent to mention RFID granted
Nothing has yet usurped the relatively simple barcode tech, but the RFID tag is creeping up on it. If you've bought a DVD or Blu-ray recently, you may have seen a sticker with what looks like a little circuit board embedded in it: that's an RFID tag. Rather than needing to be physically scanned, RFID tags talk to a shop's network over the air; the vaguely Orwellian system knows when you've picked up that CD and put it in your basket. The tags can also be read by any smartphone with NFC on board.
Somewhere in the distant future – no tills required
Eventually, RFID enthusiasts hope that these tags will replace barcodes – you'll just put your shopping into your bag and pay using your smartphone for whatever you have on you without you needing to check out at all.
Meet the future: Amazon's Firefly
2014 – Amazon launches the Fire with Firefly
Like a delicious jambalaya of all the scanning methods that came before it, Amazon's Firefly is easily the most impressive of them all. And you have all the tech required right there in your pocket.
At the touch of a button, you can use your Amazon Fire phone to scan almost anything – a book you like the look of on the tube, a film you switched on to half way through, a song on the radio, even a can of beans – to find out more about it and where you can get it from.
Amazon wants you to use this feature to buy the product you like the look of from Amazon itself – shops could become nothing but showrooms that let you put together a shopping list that's waiting for you when you get home. With no physical stock to worry about, barcodes could become redundant.
Firefly has more potential than just shopping too – you could use it to replace Google, for instance. Want to know more about a painting in a gallery? Don't spend tedious seconds typing out a search query – just point Firefly at it and you'll be redirected to a Wikipedia page about the artwork from where you can dazzle your friends with your newfound knowledge of the history of art.