March brought word of new uses for bar code technology that illustrates its ergonomic versatility and potential for increasing efficiency and safety. These applications promise to speed up transactions, cut medical errors and help bring more order to both hospitals and the natural world. The month also brought a story that suggests this child of the laser is a bit of a devil.
Those black-and-white bars, read by a laser scanner, that have become a standard sight on cans and boxes on supermarket shelves speed up transactions and make inventory control less taxing. The idea has been around since 1917, when Albert Einstein first theorized about the process that makes lasers. The bar code didn’t begin to conquer the world of commerce until 1974, when the first bar-coded product was scanned at a check-out counter. It was a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum.
A news feature by the Scripps Howard News Service observed in March that Americans continue to live more hurried lives and businesses realize they need to provide faster service if they want to remain competitive. It notes that companies are investing millions in new technologies and programs that shave a few minutes off of the total transaction time, adding that some retailers are upgrading their computer terminals to make the checkout process quicker. Many stores now have registers that print bar codes on their receipts so when customers return items, workers don’t have to manually key numbers in.
In Britain electronic devices with bar-coding technology could cut medics’ workloads and help save 2 billion Pounds (US $3.92354), according to a news release from technology company Motion Computing. It says the Salford Royal National Health System (NHS) Foundation Trust has started using the company’s page-sized Mobile Clinical Assistants (MCAs). The MCSs give medics access to patient records, make it easier to call up test results and reduce paperwork.
Lord Hunt, the NHS internet technology minister, recently announced that the NHS, patients and industry would benefit from bar-coding technology. The Department of Health says errors, many of which result from patient identity mistakes, cost the NHS around £2 billion in extra bed days for patients.
The latest bar code conquest is the natural world. An article in the Detroit Free Press notes that scientists are working on applying the bar-code method to identify species. Millions of kinds of plants and animals have yet to be catalogued, and DNA bar coding is seen as a solution.
The method depends on analyzing part of just one gene, the same gene in all cases, for every species, according to the report. With such a DNA bar code database, a field biologist could take a tiny piece of tissue, like a scale or hair or leaf, from the unknown specimen, and feed it into a hand-held device for analysis. And with a cell-phone call to the database, the device would identify the species and present its photo and description.
While bar code technology has conquered much of Russia, one small corner is resisting the invasion. Reporting a news item on Russian state television network Rossiya, Reuters said that 100 residents of the Russian village Bogolyubovo have refused to switch to new passports because they believe the documents’ bar codes contain satanic symbols. “We believe these new passports are sinful,” Valentina Yepifanova, an elderly resident of the village told Rossiya as she clutched an old, tattered passport she said she wanted to keep. “They have these bar codes and people say they contain three sixes. We are against that.”
Some residents of the village, which means “God-loving” in Russian, have also stopped collecting their pensions at the local post office because the payment slips also have bar codes that might contain the mark of the devil, according to the TV channel.
Sources: Scripps Howard News Service; Detroit Free Press; Motion Computing; Reuters