Proposed GS1 Specification Would Link Bar-Code, QR-Code, NFC and RFID Data

By Claire Swedberg

The organization's working group is planning a summer release of its new spec, while EVRYTHNG, a software company co-chairing the group, is selling its own platform to manage data about a product in a single location, whether accessed via NFC, RFID or bar-code technology.

Global standards organization GS1 has a working group developing a specification that would enable a single Web identity for every product label, whether a 2D bar code, a QR code, a Near Field Communication (NFC) tag or an ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tag, or any combination of those technologies. The specification—under the development of GS1's Mission Specific Working Group—would enable access of a Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) for point-of-sale (POS) transactions, as well as for inventory tracking, consumer-facing information and other purposes from a Web address unique to each item.

Software company EVRYTHNG is co-chairing the Mission Specific Working Group to develop what it calls the GS1 URI (Uniform Resource Identifier). At the same time, it has released its QuickStart Online Tool, which can be used with the new proposed standard to create the digital identities of products that can then be accessed and managed by and for a variety of stakeholders, from consumers to brands and retailers. What's more, it can accommodate a simple bar-code scan at a point of sale, as well as NFC or QR code scans. This, says Niall Murphy, EVRYTHNG's CEO, enables automatic access to digital content across all of the technologies.

EVRYTHNG's Niall Murphy

EVRYTHNG says the specification will enable brand owners to use either 2D bar codes or QR codes, as well as NFC technology, to allow retailers, distributors, POS systems and consumers to access a single source of data for multiple purposes.

Currently, every bar-code label comes with a GTIN that allows it to be uniquely identified by a scanner at the point of sale. However, if stores, brands or manufacturers wanted to accomplish more, they would require more labels, and could end up collecting and managing data on separate platforms. For instance, NFC and QR codes allow consumers to use their mobile devices to engage with a product by accessing information such as the ingredients of a food item, collecting loyalty points or obtaining authentication proof. UHF RFID, on the other hand, provides brands and retailers with inventory visibility, but consumers are unable to access that information. In the case of brands, a company may want to authenticate its products with one tag, while another might be used to provide digital content to consumers.

With the proposed standard, Murphy says, a single tag could accomplish all of the above-named applications. Whether a bar-code scanner is being used at the point of sale, a QR code is being scanned, or an NFC tag is being read, the label would respond by linking the user to a Web address from which the scanner or reader could extract the GTIN identifier. That would then provide the data required for that specific transaction.

Therefore, a single label with an NFC tag built into it or with a QR code, for instance, could be used not only to gain information about a product, but also to enable a purchase. (QR codes are considerably less expensive than NFC tags, while the latter have the advantage of being embeddable, since they do not require a line of sight to be scanned.)

A consumer, for instance, would simply scan the QR code or NFC tag with his or her smartphone to access a Web address for that product item, which would include its GTIN and unique identifier for that product. The Web page for the item would then provide a service on the end user's mobile phone, to make a payment.

UHF RFID tags are increasingly being applied to products in the apparel and electronics retail markets, Murphy says, and those EPC UHF tags could benefit from the new standard as well. "A single tag with a QR code for consumer interaction and an UHF RFID tag for supply chain interaction can both be linked to the same product item through their same GS1 GTIN," he states. All data generated from the QR code scan or UHF tag read could then be managed in a cohesive way.

"Viewed in the context of digitalization of the supply chain, RFID is playing a key role," Murphy says. But with the growing presence of smartphones that can scan QR codes and read NFC tags, he adds, there is a need to integrate solutions.

According to Murphy, the specification will play a role in organizing and consolidating transaction data. He cites the standardization as comsumerizing infrastructure data, since it provides consumers with increased visibility into a product, while also enabling stores and brands to better understand product purchases and consumer behavior. "Smartphones provide a powerful way to collect data about products because of their ubiquity," he says.

The QuickStart Online Tool software platform can manage all data related to the scans or reads, the company reports, as well as assign the necessary Web address to each product label. It also enables such applications as delivery of product information, consumer rewards or product authentication.

Several companies are already using the platform without the standard, including Rebecca Minkoff, to enable the consolidation of data from multiple technologies and sources (see Rebecca Minkoff Extends Its RFID System Beyond the Store). However, Murphy says, "We firmly believe in standards as a way to achieve scale."

EVRYTHNG feels a sense of urgency for the industry when it comes to the standard release, according to Murphy, since mobile operating systems in individuals' phones and tablets are already able to access data via QR codes and NFC. "From our perspective," he states, "the goal is for every product to have a digital identity in the cloud," and to ensure that there are standards regarding the access and use of that identity.

"Some two billion mobile devices can read QR codes and NFC tags automatically," Murphy says. "The missing bit has been to make those codes available on every product at scale, and to link those codes with product data. The GS1 URI will achieve that."