Digital Fables and Foibles17

Bitty Things

Twenty-five years ago, I was on an advisory committee to evaluate the final designs of the universal product code, the UPC, the now ubiquitous computer-readable emblem of little vertical bars that got President Bush into such trouble when he expressed amazement at the automated supermarket checkout register. The UPC is on cans, boxes, books (defacing this jacket), and everything but fresh vegetables.

This UPC committee's role was to give the seal of approval to the final bar-code design. After judging the finalists (the bull's-eye design was runner-up), we reviewed a handful of lunatic but intriguing suggestions, such as making all food slightly radioactive, in proportion to its cost, so that each checkout counter became a Geiger counter where shoppers paid for the number of rads in their carts. (It is estimated that a normal can of spinach exposes you to a dose of one-tenth of a micro-rad per kilogram per hour; this is one-billionth of a joule per hour, by comparison to the 100,000 joules of chemical energy, which is why Popeye does much better for his strength by eating it.)

This crazy idea had a small germ of wisdom: Why not make each UPC able to radiate data? Or, why not let it be activatable, so that like a child in kindergarten it can raise its hand?

The reason is that this takes power, and consequently UPCs and other small "name plates" tend to be passive. There are solutions, like taking power from light or using so little power that a small battery is usable for years. When this happens in a tiny format, all "things" can be digitally active. For example, every teacup, article of clothing, and (yes) book in your house can say where it is. In the future, the concept of being lost will be as unlikely as being "out of print."

Active labels are an important part of the future, because they bring into the digital fold small members of the inanimate world that are not electrical: teddy bears, allen wrenches, and fruit bowls. In the more immediate future, active labels will be (and are being) used as badges worn by people and animals. What better Christmas present than an active dog or cat collar, so the household pet can never again be lost (or, more precisely, it can get lost, but you will know where it is).

People already wear active badges for security purposes. A novel application is being developed by Olivetti in England. Wearing one of their badges allows the building to know where you are. When you have a call, the phone you're nearest rings. In the future, such devices will not be tacked on with a clip or safety pin but securely attached or woven into your clothes.

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