I remember a day where I was really fascinated with what I thought was the complicated mechanism we humans refer to as a bar code. I have worked with bar codes for so many years to the point they have lost their luster, but I still love the underlying bar code concept and its sister RFID technology.
What is a bar code? That question requires two answers. First, a bar code is simply a font. The black and white ink seen on a piece of paper is just like any other font you would find in Microsoft Word. For the second answer, the bar code font displays a unique identifier whether that be a database identification number or another identifier like a social security number or web address. If you want to experiment and test this theory, open Microsoft Word on your computer and type the word TEST. Highlight the word TEST and change fonts to Free 3 of 9 or whatever bar code font you have installed. Don’t have one installed? Just Google “free 3 of 9 font” and you can download it to your computer.
The wireless version of a bar code is called an RFID (Radio Frequency IDentifier) tag. The RFID tag takes bar codes to another level by allowing a bar code to pass by a wireless receiver as opposed to the old school way of pointing a bar code reader directly at a bar code on paper. Disney, the manufacturing industry, and many retail environments have been leaders in RFID although the technology is still too expensive for other industries to efficiently implement. This technology is the most efficient and will probably become the standard when equipment and implementation prices level out.
We now know what a bar code is, but how does it all tie together behind the scenes. Remember those unique identifiers we talked about earlier. All bar code information is stored in a database of some kind. Every company does this differently, but let’s use Disney and me as an example customer. I (Scott) call Disney and book a room and buy tickets to the park. When I call, I am immediately added to the massive Disney customer database and am assigned a unique numeric identifier that no other person on earth is assigned. At this point, I am referred to as customer number 123456789 in the Disney database.
The first time I visit Disney, I am given a wireless bracelet and told to have a good day by the Disney staff. What the customer service rep didn’t tell me is that she just electronically joined my customer ID of 123456789 to the wireless bracelet. The two items (the bracelet and ID number) are now one unit in theory so any time I pass a wireless receiver in the Disney park, the receiver immediately talks across the computer network to a Disney server and checks to see who ID number 123456789 is in the real world (Scott in my case). It also sends back acknowledgement that I am allowed to be in the park. Different color codes and sounds displayed on the Disney receiver designate other related information sent back about my account such as whether or not I have been banned from the park or even if I am a VIP guest that should have extra care.
You have seen the way Disney uses the technology, but the same can be said for all other uses of bar codes and RFID. Manufacturers assign codes to furniture as it is shipped throughout the country and hospitals give you a patient number that is pulled from a bar code. The benefit to bar codes and RFID is only the true author of the software can tell you anything about the number. You could steal my bracelet at Disney and all you could figure out about me is that my customer number is 123456789. You would not be able to learn where I live or any of my payment information unless you had access to the internal Disney databases that store that information because that information is joined together behind the scenes while on site at Disney. All that said, it seems so much easier to just grab your Disney wireless bracelet and run through the park not thinking about what is happening behind the scenes. But at least now you know how it all works.