For several decades, the Universal Product Code (UPC)—a strip of vertical black bars with white spaces printed on product packages—has helped speed our way through checkout lines, where cashiers use special laser wands to scan the codes. Each UPC (also commonly referred to as a "bar code") corresponds to a unique 12-digit number that is assigned to a product name, price, and other useful information held in a database. When a UPC is scanned, the code is matched to the product and the product's database information is displayed on the register and printed on your receipt.
About a decade ago, the visual impairment community enthusiastically greeted the introduction of several UPC readers that could be used at home or on the job to access the same product information with speech. One of the first devices to use UPC technology to help the blind identify products was the i.d. mate from En-Vision America.
These devices include a low-power laser wand that, when passed over a can, box, or other product, locate and capture the UPC. An onboard processor contains a database with information on millions of products—nearly anything you might purchase in a grocery, hardware, stationery, or other store. These databases often can include information such as serving sizes, cooking instructions and the like, and after the device speaks the brand and product name of the item it can speak this extra information, too. The current version of the i.d. mate includes a currency identifier along with a built-in camera and Skype capabilities in case you need to phone a friend for assistance.
Users of smartphones and tablets now also have a number of bar code reader apps from which to choose. Many of the most popular, including Google Goggles for Android and Red Laser from eBay for both iOS and Android are free. Another, Digit-Eyes for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, was designed from the ground up to assist the print impaired.
The i.d. mate Quest and other dedicated solutions that use red lasers for their light source instead of a camera image are far more effective at locating and identifying bar codes. Often all that is needed is to press the scan button and point the hand scanner toward the product in question. Mobile apps rely on weaker, ambient light augmented by the phone’s camera flash. More often than not with a mobile app you will have to hunt for the code, which means investing some time learning where bar codes are normally printed on boxes, jars, cans and other packaging. Even if you do know that most soup cans display their bar codes near the label seam, however, it’s not always a cinch to locate it and get an accurate scan. Scanning with an app also requires a fairly steady hand to hold your phone or tablet long enough to locate the UPC and initiate the scan.
The good news is that since there are so many free app options you can test your scanning skills with just a small investment of time.
Using QR Codes for Identification
You can also use the same mobile apps mentioned above for UPC scanning to read QR codes, which many people with visual impairments use to label and identify everything from clothes in the closet to folders in a file cabinet. QR codes seem to be popping up on everything from magazine ads to the front door of your favorite corner restaurant. One reason for their rapid rise is the growing number of people carrying smartphones, which are ideal for reading QR codes. QR codes can relay a lot more data than a standard UPC code, and there is no database of products; the QR code holds its information within the code itself.
Anyone can create and use a QR code, and many blind individuals use them to tag items for later identification. One place to get started is at the Digit-Eyes website. Create a free account, then create as many free QR codes as you like. You might create one for your tax returns file folder, for example, and another for a music CD jewel box. When you’re done you’ll be prompted to download a PDF file formatted to print the codes on sheets of your favorite Avery labels.
The site also sells pre-printed labels, which you tag with the item name the first time you scan it with the Digit-Eyes app for Apple iOS.
You can even purchase washable QR code labels for your wardrobe. These labels can be quite handy when you need to distinguish your red sweater from your blue, or your gray slacks from the white ones you don’t want to wear after Labor Day.
Android users can read QR codes with a number of free apps. One of the most popular is Google Goggles, which not only reads QR codes and UPCs, but all manner of unlabeled items from the store, around the house and on the job.