Smart Labels – The Next Big Thing in Fashion, Healthcare and More

Smart Labels – The Next Big Thing in Fashion, Healthcare and More

Smart labels have slowly but surely been climbing the popularity ladder over the couple of years, and are now becoming a household name like their cousins wearables. But why in 2016 when the technology was born nearly half a century ago?

When the first Universal Product Code (UPC) application took place in June 26th 1974 as a supermarket cashier scanned the first ever barcode-bearing commercial product, the world must have been duped into believing that that was the zenith of product labelling technology. They would be forgiven for thinking that because, well, nobody judged us for not ever imagining touchscreen input would replace the keyboards, mouses and joysticks one day.

First forward to four decades down the line. A new technology – drawing inspiration from the age old barcode’s blue print – is born, and product labelling and tracking don’t look like they are ever going to be the same again. And no, it’s not the scientists [again] trying to outstrip a revolutionary invention from the Jurassic era with a redesigned package of their own to get the credit. No. It’s a whole new thing. It outperforms the barcode’s abilities, which are limited to bearing only the information printed on it (in form of stripes, characters and patterns) and displaying it when an optical device scans across.

Smart Label Hitting Mainstream

What started a few years ago and that is on the verge of going mainstream is a lot more refined and in harmony with the overall current state of technology. Products will come lined with minuscule electronic devices which will not only parade at the checkout scanner what they are fed with but also track, share and allow for the manipulation of whatever information they are carrying. So basically, the internet of things (IoT) is welcoming a new member to its brimming arsenal.

You may have already heard about the traditional silicon sensors that have been used for years to monitor plane and vehicle engines, medical devices and a lot other equipment with electronic components. They are very similar with smart labels, but don’t mistake the two for each other. Smart labels are flexible – which is basically their standout property – and can be fitted seamlessly on small bendable packaging. They are barely visible, by the way; most of them measure less than 0.3 millimetres in width and can fit on surfaces of right about any shape and texture.

How Smart Labels Work

While we are not going to dig deep into the technicality of smart labels, here’s a superficial outlook of how they work:

  • Data is stored in the approximately 2KB memory space in the chip and waits to be read. Data is stored in text form to economise on space.
  • The chip’s antenna receives electromagnetic energy from the reader and sends radio waves back using energy harvested from the reader’s electromagnetic field.
  • The reader – a scanner, computer, smartphone etc. – receives the waves, interprets them and displays them as readable data.

Uses of Smart Labels

But what’s the necessity of an embedded piece of electronic that can track an electronic and send information about it to whomever? Well, there is more than enough reason to not take this for just any other technological breakthrough. For one, it’s cheaper – way cheaper than the silicon sensors. We all love cheap. But that was just a spin-off bonus. Below are some of the major current and future functions of smart labels.

1. Location Tracking

Once upon a time, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags (another name for smart labels) was tied down to the tracking of cattle in ranches, but now producers, just like farmers, all around the world can tell the whereabouts of their products, just like cows, straight from their PC’s in the comforts of their offices.

Right from the moment it leaves the company’s premises, to when it’s offloaded at the wholesaler’s, supplied to the retailer and dropped into the trolley by the consumer – the producer can see it. They will know how fast their product sells and which customers are buying it. And, yes, you guessed it: thieves are going to have it rougher, at least until when they come up with a counteroffensive.

We are going to lose less pets too – and come across fewer signs of missing Alzheimer patients.

In basic terms, you can tag right about any standstill, creeping or flying little thing that you may wish without involving the government when, of course, it reaches the grass root level. Currently, airlines and fleets are among the beneficiaries of this technology that started looking adoptable only a few years ago.

2. Product Info, Purchase and After-Sales Services

Who else has a problem with studying the little blurbs stuck on the sides of items before tossing them into the trolley? Well, smart labels has an answer to that, at least according to SmartLabel™, an initiative of the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA). SmartLabel™ will supposedly ensure you get all the information about a product you are interested in by simply scanning a QR code printed on the package with your smartphone.

So, yes, you don’t need to bring your reading glasses with you to the shopping mall. Just your phone. And in fact, GMA suggests that you may not even need your own gadget. Retailers will have one for you at the customer care desk.

Once you’ve confirmed there is no gluten, cholesterol or saturated fats in this yummy-looking pack of eatables, you will now follow the queue to pay. Or maybe not. Because probably there will be no queue. At the exit will be a tag reader that will scan your shopping basket, tabulate the total cost and send the bill to your bank account.

Upon reaching home, you will put your package in a smart refrigerator which will also scan your smart label and let the manufacturer know that you purchased their product. It will also read and memorise the products’ expiry dates and silently pledge to not let you drink spoilt milk. As you toss the bad foods to the dustbin, your refrigerator – if programmed – will automatically order for another bundle of the items or just add them to your shopping list for next time.

Now that the retailer knows your preferences, they can prepare more germane newsletters instead of the traditional generic ones. The manufacturer the same. They can inform you of when a similar but better product comes out or when there is an offer. Everything comes straight to your phone.

3. Smart Labels in Health Care

I can tell you for free that more than seven out of ten people don’t like the geeky feel that comes with the now-obligatory wearable technology. But then again more than half of those ten reckon the world can’t do without these ugly-looking devices. [Disclaimer: that’s my own stat which you should feel free to dispute].

Well, smart labels might just end the monopoly once and for all. We may soon get to find the enormous GPS-fitted, temperature-, pulse- and distance- monitoring Apple Watches a thing of the past.

Yes, with invincible or camouflaged 0.3mm-thick smart label linings fitted without a glitch along the base of your underwear or curving seamlessly with the linen insides of your bra cups, why would you even think of acquiring a red-and-blue-glowing tee shirt armband or pair of gloves? I would personally love something that doesn’t come between me and a few letters of the keyboard when I’m typing just because it lets me know when my heart is offbeat or when it’s time to sleep.

In words of one syllable, we have in smart labels a new way of discreetly and inexpensively monitoring our health statuses and responsiveness to drugs, which not only improves our lives but also help researchers and doctors come up with better remedies in case of future outbreaks.

4. Smart Labels in Fashion

One thing about technology these days is that it doesn’t just focus on how well it solves problems but also how well it reaches the people. Fashion is one of those fields in which almost everyone has an interest. It provides a good platform for discoverers to penetrate through the multiple barriers in social classes and cultural and religious disparities to engage with the bottommost of targets.

With the help of smart labels, it seems we are going to form a personal relationship with what we wear, with the internet in between. A joint effort from a UK IoT company known as Evrything and apparel-manufacturer Avery Dennison will be seeing billions of clothes, shoes and other garments and accessories each uniquely connected to a cloud-based digital profile.

It’s so serious that they have actually attracted the interests of Dawn Capital, Cisco and Atomico, whom together with other investors have invested in the duo’s idea a total of $14.5 million. Just for the record, Avery Dennison is listed as the number one supplier of care labels in the world with Nike, Under Armour and Hugo Boss just but some of its major clients.

So, what exactly are smart labels embedded in clothes going to serve?

  1. Well, firstly, like I said earlier, they are going to act as a Plan B – and eventually maybe A – to the activity trackers that a great deal of people don’t fancy.
  2. Secondly – and this is more interesting and unique to them actually – smart labels will let you know how your t-shirt or shoe is faring. Your shoes will now tell you through sms that it’s not advisable to iron them or that it’s time to visit the cobbler etc.
  3. For those who have had enough of unwittingly splurging for fake replicas, the smart labels will also let you read the authenticity of a garment before buying it. Bad news to the imposters!

The UPC-Shortfall Question

So where will we get unique codes to attach to each and every single one of the millions of products that are purchased each day across the globe? Well, MIT’s Auto-ID centre is currently trying to come up with a solution for that.

Particularly, they want to do away with the UPC and replace it with an Electronic Product Code (EPC). For techies, you may remember how they backed the old school Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) with version 6 (IPv6) when the number of mobile phones and computers began outweighing the 4.3 billion IP addresses that the IPv4 could support.

That’s what the guys at MIT are trying to pull off.

What are the critics saying?

So the good news is that soon you will control your smart home from your smartphone in your smart clothes. The bad news is that the critics are here to make the fairy tale look not so good. We would wish to ignore them but then we can’t afford it because they have been right more than once in the past.

One of the main drawbacks of this kind of technologies, especially during their early stages, is that they can be super-vulnerable to online crooks. Quite cringe-worthy to imagine someone with a copy of every piece of your personal data ranging from your diet and schedules to what you’ve been doing at the gym and medications.

What is even more worrisome is the idea of having important data accessed by unauthorised persons and corrupted for the sake of it. Take product descriptions for instance. You’re allergic to, say, milk and the description of a product you eventually purchase wrongfully indicates that the product is free of dairy components. You know what happens when you have a problem whose cause is something you think is taken care of? That’s what will be on the stocks.

Generally, cyber security is the main threat to the spread and adoption of this category of technological breakthroughs. It’s been on a steady rise, to add insult to injury. In 2009, there were fewer than five million cases of cyber-security incidents worldwide. Fast-forward to 2015: little under 60 million cases reported and over ten million attempts countered and blocked before fruition.

What makes us think 2016 would be safer?

In conclusion

Just like anything – from proteins, trees and neighbours to seas, democracy and life, the digital world has its cool and dark facets. The only positive thing about smart labels is that they don’t have a unique drawback that calls for some special devotion; just the cyber crooks – who have been amongst us since internet.

So, the downsides of the World Wide Web are sure not going to stop as from filling the gap left behind by the IoT, digitising fashion and transforming the healthcare space for the better. We will probably be able to detect otherwise deadly diseases and conditions that are connected with lifestyle and nip them at the bud. Tiresome physical shopping may become a thing of the past and general household objects may finally find a way to communicate to us.

Feel free to engage with us in the comment section below and let us know what you think about this positively exciting subject.

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