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InfraredTags: the future barcodes of tangible products and goods

When you buy music online, you get the corresponding details embedded in the digital file, such as the song's title, genre, featured artists, composer, and producer. You can receive data similar to that of a digital photo, such as the time, date, and location of the photograph. Mustafa Doga Dogan, a 4th-year PhD student in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, wondered if engineers could do the same for tangible items.

Dogan's concept became more concrete in latter half of 2020, when he learned about a new smartphone model with a camera that uses the infrared (IR) range of the electromagnetic spectrum that the naked eye cannot observe. Furthermore, infrared light has the unique property to see through components that are transparent to visible light.

InfraredTags for products, goods, and services.

They later dubbed this study the InfraredTags. These tags are unnoticeable and more lasting than normal barcodes placed to objects, which can be stripped or detached or be otherwise unreadable over time, because they are placed within the interior of objects.

Dogan spent a few months the year before looking for a suited plastic material that allows IR light to pass through. After a thorough search, he discovered tailored plastic filaments manufactured by a small German company that appeared promising. He then conducted an analysis with a spectrophotometer, discovering that it was opaque to visible light but translucent to infrared light — exactly the characteristics he was looking for.

Next process was to try out different printing processes for tags. The tags can be standard barcodes that display data in a linear, one-dimensional format. Two-dimensional solutions, such as square QR codes and ArUco markers, have the capability to fit more data into the same area. The MIT team created a software "user interface" that indicates how the tag should appear and where it should show in a specific object. Multiple tags could, in fact, be positioned throughout the same object, allowing users to access information if views of certain points are obscured.

InfraredTags for assets and goods.

“InfraredTags is a really clever, useful, and accessible approach to embedding information into objects,” comments Fraser Anderson, a senior principal research scientist at the Autodesk Technology Center in Toronto, Ontario. “I can easily imagine a future where you can point a standard camera at any object and it would give you information about that object — where it was manufactured, the materials used, or repair instructions — and you wouldn’t even have to search for a barcode.”

Dogan and his colleagues have developed a number of prototypes along these lines, such as mugs with bar codes etched inside the container walls, beneath a 1-millimeter plastic shell that can be read by infrared cameras.

If tags such as these become more common, people are likely to use their smartphones to switch the lights on and off, adjust the volume of a speaker, or control the thermostat. Dogan and his associates are considering the option of incorporating infrared cameras into augmented reality headsets. “That way,” he mused, “we could inform ourselves faster and more reliably while walking around in a store or museum or library.”

InfraredTags for tangible assets, good, and services.

Kaan Aksit, an associate professor of computer science at University College London, sees great potential for this technology. “The labeling and tagging industry is a vast part of our day-to-day lives,” Aksit says. “Everything we buy from grocery stores to pieces to be replaced in our devices must be identified and tracked correctly. Doga’s work addresses these issues by providing an invisible tagging system that is mostly protected against the sands of time.” And as futuristic notions like the metaverse become part of our reality, he added.

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