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Well, How Do Barcodes Work?

Posted by: jeremy

Barcodes. They are everywhere. Used by stores, shops, the post-office and all sorts of businesses, worldwide.

Barcodes are a lot of fun and not many people know just how sophisticated the technology behind them really is. Let’s hope that this article sheds some light on this mysterious topic.

Have you ever wondered how these nifty things work? What is the mechanism behind the computer knowing exactly what item to display on the screen, with the exact same price tag as in the shelves? To answer that question, we have to take a closer look at the barcode itself.

The most significant aspect about barcodes are the various black-and-white stripes, making up the entirety of the barcode.

What many people don’t know is that these stripes actually represent the first nine consecutive digits of our standardized numerical system, meaning that you could, hypothetically speaking, create an infinite amount of unique combinations using only two colors and some stripes!

But the real magic doesn’t end here. You see, for a barcode to be recognized as an item on a shelf, it has to be scanned by a barcode scanner or lesser-known, as an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) device.

Even though it takes less than a second in real-time to scan a barcode, the process boils down to:

  • An LED light (commonly red) covers the surface of the barcode.
  • The two colors reflect different amounts of light back to the scanner, allowing them to tell apart the two by the quantity of light received.

Black colors on barcodes are known to reflect little-to-no light while white areas act as a great mirror.

  • The scanner has an in-built reader of sorts that tells it which pattern of light equates to which number the barcode is representing.
  • An electrical circuit converts these digits into decimal numbers.
  • The computer simply compares the already converted numbers to the large database of items, once it has found a match, it outputs that information through a designated screen.

And that’s the science to how a barcode works in it’s most basic form!


Published in Barcodes
Jeremy has been a writer for BuyBarcodes since the very beginning. His experience dealing with barcodes in a commercial manner dates back to 2011.