Linking physical products with digital information through tagging

Tagging a bottle of wine with a tamper-evident NFC seal.

At Provenance, we build tools to make supply chain data more transparent and accessible to shoppers both online and in physical stores. In recent months, we’ve developed a number of tagging methods to link physical products with digital information. From QR codes to 3D scanning, we’re constantly exploring new ways to make tagging a seamless experience for businesses and customers all along a supply chain.

 

Traditional QR codes as a widely accessible tagging method

QR codes might not sound like the most secure tags – they’re not. They are among the most universal ones that anyone can create online, and print off a home printer. As much as we welcomed the announcement that Apple will soon enable NFC on the iPhone, using your phone’s camera to scan a QR code is currently the most widespread way to access information about an object.

For a collaboration with fashion designer Martine Jarlgaard, we used QR Codes to identify a tracked fleece garment from alpaca farm to consumer. The label we developed doubled to also include an NFC tag for Android users.

Martine Jarlgaard scans a smart label featuring both a QR code and NFC sticker to activate a Provenance webpage featuring a garment’s journey from farm to studio.

Coconut tagging

We’ve also been working with Dutch NGO Fairfood, tracking fairly traded coconuts from Indonesia to the Netherlands. We’ve seized this opportunity to brainstorm what smart tagging could look like for fresh coconut.

On top of methods using NFC tags, QR codes, and laser-engraved barcodes, that reduce the need for extra packaging, we explored other ways of identifying coconuts by their unique properties. We ideated ways to take advantage of the each coconut’s distinct shape, as well as the naturally-occurring marks appearing on each coconut’s husk, treating them as we would treat human fingerprints. Shape recognition is already being used to detect bottles for recycling in Germany, and advances in 3D scanning technology could extend the possibilities of identifying products by their external attributes.

While each individual tagging method has its strengths and limitations, we propose combining multiple identification methods for robustness and flexibility. Depending on the available tools, different degrees of confidence in the identification could be guaranteed.

Towards smarter tags

We’re currently exploring tags that provide increased security features. Together with OneToWine, we experimented with the use of tamper-evident NFC tags in place of the usual paper-based seal. Tamper-evident NFC tags are virtually impossible to copy due to a different secret code being stored securely by each of them. This ensures that the information shoppers access when they scan the code corresponds to the actual product they’re holding in their hand. On top of that, the tag gives an alert if the bottle had been opened previously, signalling potential fraud or mishandling.

Interoperability

We are not looking to build tomorrow’s identification technologies. There are already many amazing projects doing just that. However, exploring innovative methods helps use build a data system that can take advantage of them once they flows into the mainstream.