Product identification tags, from barcodes to QR codes, have become ubiquitous, to the point of being essentially invisible to consumers. Now comes a type that’s literally so.
The BrightMarker is an invisible, fluorescent tag, concealed within materials created by 3D printing, and detectable only under near-infrared light. It was developed at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).
The tag is more than a source of static information on the marked product, says CSAIL lead researcher Mustafa Doga Dogan. It can also be used to track product in motion, and be incorporated into augmented and virtual reality scenarios.
Working on his PhD five years ago, Dogan became interested in embedding metadata into physical objects, especially for items that were designed, engineered and fabricated. Examples might include nutritional labels on foods, with the ability “to identify any product and get information about what the user might want to know.” In the process, the technology would create “more personal interactions and experiences.”
An invisible tag would also prove valuable for security, embedding multiple types of information for verifications of product content, origin and authenticity.
BrightMarkers seem best designed, however, for commercial use, with the ability to track products along the assembly line, through the warehouse and on to the buyer at the individual level. By giving each item a unique ID, manufacturers and distributors can see precisely how it's being sold and used by consumers.
There’s even a potential application in video games, with players able to add a BrightMarker to their controllers, enhancing the tracking capabilities of VR headsets. It can be incorporated into wearables such as bracelets, to detect the user’s motion.
Dogan says the tags will be visible to consumers through smart glasses, which are expected to gain in popularity in AR and VR headsets in the coming years. Just as people became familiar with QR codes during the pandemic in the form of restaurant menus, Dogan says, they will “develop an intuition that an object would have information embedded.”
In the shorter term, the technology is expected to find use primarily in industrial settings, with factories and warehouses designed expressly for scanning at each stage of a product’s creation and movement.
Users can create a BrightMarker, which must be embedded into the product at the time of printing, by downloading CSAIL’s software program for 3D modeling. Built-in fluorescent filaments make the tags visible through infrared.
MIT researchers have developed two types of hardware that can detect BrightMarkers, one for smartphones and the other for AR and VR headsets. What the user sees is akin to a glow-in-the-dark QR code.
The tags and the metadata contained within them can’t be tampered with because they’re embedded in the item. And because they’re invisible to the naked eye, they don’t alter the item’s appearance or function.
One of the applications most valuable to product manufacturers — and possibly most disturbing to consumers — is the ability of BrightMarkers to track buyer behavior, then match that with commercial messages. That, of course, is already a common practice among social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, but the amount of information contained within a BrightMaker, combined with its invisibility, makes it an especially powerful tool for merchandisers. Consumers and regulators could well push back against what they take to be a further invasion of privacy and unacceptable monetization of their private data. The technology could trigger additional privacy laws such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Dogan says it’s important to understand the implications of the BrightMarker tag at the consumer stage. “Users should have the option to turn off this capability.”
Less controversial are the possibilities for use of BrightMarkers in the supply chain, where tracking and visibility are paramount, especially during a time of rising concerns about environmental impact. Dogan says the tags could play a key role in creating a “circular” economy, minimizing waste and promoting recyclability of products and materials.
Ultimately, Dogan believes, the BrightMarker technology holds “tremendous promise” in creating real-life interactions between products and users. In a recent MIT article, he envisioned “a world where BrightMarkers become seamlessly integrated into our everyday objects, facilitating effortless interactions between the physical and digital realms. From retail experiences where consumers can access detailed product information in stores to industrial settings, where BrightMarkers streamline supply chain tracking, the possibilities are vast.”
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