Bigger Pi for All in New Barcodes


By Mow Wai-ho, Associate Professor of Electronic and Computer Engineering, HKUST

Compared with the mainland, Hong Kong seems to be lagging behind in adopting QR codes for financial transactions.

However, innovators in Hong Kong are not standing still in developing the next generation of barcodes that can revolutionize the way we do business.

For example, my research team is continuing to work on PiCode, a barcode variant that utilizes images instead of the black-and-white lines and blocks that comprise conventional barcodes and QR codes.

We have spent almost five years researching picture- and video-embedded codes, and are now in the demonstration phase.

Picture-embedded barcodes offer considerable potential in consumer marketing. Many people may find regular barcodes intrusive, and businesses have searched for ways to transmit data and information to consumers in a more pleasing format.

Video-embedded codes work by embedding data into a video, which can be regarded as a series of picture-embedded codes, and consumers can find out more about a particular product by pointing their phone cameras, equipped with a customized software scanner, at it. While today's QR codes are frequently used to make simple financial transactions or send discount coupons, a video-embedded code is capable of transmitting more complex materials, such as a product brochure, without relying on internet connections.

For example, say you're promoting an organic food market business and your advertisement video can include a video code that transmits not only discount coupons but also a seasonal food guide with mouth-watering pictures.

This is significant, as it enables businesses and consumers to interact whenever there are digital signage and displays, even when mobile data is unavailable, such as inside an airplane cabin, or at a crowded location, like inside an MTR carriage, where users frequently encounter slower network speeds due to limited bandwidth being shared by many people.

Finally, video-embedded codes provide a third critical benefit over QR codes: vastly enhanced security.

In the mainland and elsewhere, there have been cases where criminals have stolen funds from unsuspecting users by manipulating QR codes or even just by photographing codes with phone cameras.

Why are video-embedded codes safer?

A simple barcode or QR code contains very few data per pixel at tens or hundreds of bytes. A criminal can easily capture the entire code with phone cameras and they can then easily manipulate the codes to create fake QR codes to steal funds from unsuspecting users.

Meanwhile, video-embedded codes, by virtue of the multiple image frames and the considerably larger amount of data they contain, are much harder to "steal."

Current smartphone cameras are unable to record all the data embedded in these types of codes; as phone cameras continue to advance, however, future codes have to stay ahead to provide optimal security for users.

From facilitating business interactivity between companies and consumers to allowing the public to make digital payments in a more secure way, video-embedded codes have a great potential to be widely adopted in Hong Kong.

The article was published on The Standard on April 24, 2019.

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