Microsoft gives bar codes a splash of color

Software maker is licensing a new format that uses colorful triangles, rather than black and white lines, to pack more data into less space. Images: Microsoft's multicolor bar code

After years of being decked out in monochromatic stripes, the bar code is going color.

The bar code has already undergone some changes. Though the standard, striped variety is still ubiquitous on supermarket goods, two-dimensional bar codes have become commonplace on shipping labels, airline boarding passes and all over the place in Japan.

Now, Microsoft is hoping to take things a step further by adding color to the mix.

"We use color to store more information," said Gavin Jancke, director of engineering for Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., research labs. Jancke is the creator of the new bar code format, which uses either four or eight hues to pack more data into less space. The new bar code also uses small triangles, as opposed to the squares used in the 2D black and white bar codes and the alternating thin and thick lines used in traditional UPC symbols.

The color bar code is being targeted especially for use on commercial media such as movies, video games and other recordings. Microsoft said the High Capacity Color Bar Code could start showing up on DVDs by the end of this year, thanks to a deal it has signed with an organization that helps coordinate product labeling for audiovisual works.

The idea is that after adding the new bar code, then DVDs and their packages would offer added security or, potentially, links to a movie trailer or other bonus features.

There are some downsides to the colorful approach. In addition to the obvious need for color labels, it also requires fairly high-quality printing, making it unsuitable for, say, shipping labels. Standard bar code scanners also won't read the codes.

Such an expanded use is somewhat reminiscent of the ill-fated CueCat, which embedded bar code links in print publications.

But Jancke sees reasons why his bar code is better than the extinct digital feline.

"The CueCat required specific hardware that needed to be attached to a PC," Jancke said, noting that the Microsoft-developed bar code could be read by devices consumers already have, such as a Web cam or cell phone camera.

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