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Invisible Watermarking Could Help Alleviate the Wait

The next time you’re sitting in line, waiting for the cashier to find an oddly-placed barcode on the snack package the customer in front of you so desperately craves, think of this: this dismal part of life may be coming to an end.

While not the most demanding or infuriating problem, the fact that barcodes can be difficult to find does slow down checkout lines. More importantly, these slowdowns can truly affect the bottom lines of companies, with lost time paid out to employees and the lost sale as a customer simply tosses the product to the side to continue the transaction. There’s even the potential to lose repeat business by customers who don’t want to deal with waiting. Perhaps these reasons explain why an Instagram post by Walmart CEO Doug McMillon is garnering so much attention.

The photo shows a bag of chips passing over a standard grocery store barcode scanner. However, there is no barcode: instead, the product features “invisible watermarking.” To put it simply, the product is covered in digital barcodes that are invisible to the human eye. Grocery scanners, however, can scan them quickly and easily. McMillon says in the description of the photo that the technology “could transform the way our customers check out.”

Digimarc, a Beaverton, OR-based company, has been developing digital watermarking technology for years and is responsible for the technology in the photo. In the past, they’ve tried to incorporate the technology in newspaper and magazine photos with the intention of linking a consumer back to online information after scanning the photo with a smartphone. But this application could be truly groundbreaking for supermarket sales.

I think this technology has the potential to really speed up the self-checkout lane at your local market. To be fair, it could speed up checkout times at traditional registers and should help newer cashiers adjust, but cash register veterans should have a pretty good idea on how to find a barcode on a product, even one they’ve never seen before. But for the uninitiated, the ability to simply wave a product in front of a scanner and move it directly to the conveyer belt increases convenience and speed, two qualities that can attract consumers.

I will keep this in mind the next time I am stuck waiting at checkout. The wait is almost over.