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I know several people have written about this book (Code) already. I started and stopped several of the books on this list, but this one is simply amazing. You should all definitely READ THIS BOOK. It breaks down how code (and computers) work in a very simple and easy to understand way. Each chapter builds on what has come before, and a very lucid and detailed map of our modern information age slowly unfolds.

I’d like to focus in on the section explaining how UPC bar codes work. I was really captivated when I learned that those black bars and white spaces in the bar codes are actually binary (1’s & 0’s). In the book the author used the UPC code from the Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup can as an example:

Take a look at that bar code, hopefully you’ll notice that the bars and the spaces are all different widths. When you see a larger bar, that is just smaller bars stacked beside each other. The largest bar is actually four small bars put together, and likewise, the largest space is four spaces put together. Each single width bar is equal to a 1 and each single width space is equal to a 0. If you have a large, 4 bar width, bar, that translates to four 1’s, and again, likewise for the spaces, but they would be four 0’s.

When reading about the bar codes I started thinking about what kind of art I could make out of this binary information. I thought that it might be nice to translate the image of a product into it’s own bar code.

I started with the image of a Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup can and turned it on it’s side, so it would be a better width for a bar code.

I then downsampled, and afterwords upsampled, the image (thanks Mark Kleeb) to smear the image into lines.

This is already starting to look like a bar code, but I really wanted to represent the actual bar code with the image. So after a very long time encoding all the details of the UPC algorithm and analyzing the colors and brightness of the image I came up with my own artistic version of the Chicken Noodel Soup bar code.  It’s not exact, I’m using different (and multiple) colors for different single width bars beside each other, and each strip changes color a little from top to bottom. I don’t think it will scan, but it definitely looks like the bar code.

I’ll put my Processing code and more explaination up on my blog when I get a chance. For now, I’d like to hear from you about how’d you use bar codes, or binary, in an artistic way.


12 comments to barCODE

  • Nancy


  • Ben Kauffman

    Aaron, any idea if any companies publish/release their products barcodes or their system of barcoding? My guess is no but still, I think it’d be a really interesting keyhole into the life of a package, as its born in a factory and dies (!) in some consumer’s home. I’d love to see all the places its been, all the time zones its passed through, all the gas burned to get it from point A to point B.

    Maybe there’s info like this in the public domain somewhere??

  • Aaron

    thanks nancy!

  • Aaron

    I’m not sure Ben. I don’t think a bar code is going to track the life of a product though. In the example I used above, Campbell is using a universal product code standard where the first 5 inner numbers are the code for the company and the second 5 inner numbers are for the product. This same bar code will be on all Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup cans and won’t identify a specific can, or where it came from specifically. I’m guessing big companies might have more then one processing plant for these type of things.

    But yeah, that would be cool to visualize the life of a product. I could see an installation where you scan one of the artified barcodes and then you can see the whole life of that product visualized on screen or projected.

  • Aaron

    I put up more info and some code on my blog:

  • Brett

    First of all, awesome job Aaron! I really like your version of the barcode. It made me think of these japanese barcodes: (The ones at the top, but lots of barcode goodness there)

    I’ll definitely check out the book, but a little tangentially, what are your thoughts on QR codes? I’ve only seen a couple that have been actually useful. It seems like one of those technologies that sound really great, but no one really needs or uses them. I especially love when I see them on ads in the subway, since they ALL need an internet connection to work.

    By the way Aaron, the .tif images you posted on your blog weren’t showing up on my computer (MBP, Chrome)

  • Fang-Yu

    Wow, it looks really great!!
    Do you try to scan your barcode? I want to know if you put the color on it,does it work? If it works, that’s amazing~~

  • Harry (Chiu-Hao) Chen

    Bar code is always a charming encoding method but looks like low-tech. But thanks for there are lots creative artists make these bar codes more beautiful like Brett’s shared URL. However, If you are still curious about how bar code is decode/ encode. You can also look at the 9th chapter of “The Hidden Beauty of Computer Science”. It also provide the detail design of UPC.

  • Joseph Lim

    I’m always surprised at the richness you can get from this type of image processing. One of my favorite websites a while back was:

    Which uses a similar sort of image processing to create movie snapshots.

    There is also this guy which creates a clock out of images from a camera:

    Have you thought about the possibility of working with this kind of processing to “record” what people are buying and then maybe putting together 100 different people’s carts as a kind of mapping/cataloging? Might be a fun project.

  • HanByul

    I hope that all things in shop have that kind of barcodes.. :) As Harry said, Barcode looks like a bit low-tech in these days. It shows its implied information directly. In this view, AR with square code also looks a bit low-tech even though lots of amazing technologies were used for it. (I don’t imply any negative things in ‘low-tech’) They are kind of attempts of people to see information beyond the reality, people will keep making efforts to grab the information behind of their real sight, and if it is beautiful like your barcodes, I would be happy :)

  • rtb288

    This is wonderful, Aaron. I was watching you through the process but your explanations were perfect. It would be really interesting to see all bar codes done like this. The values would hold so much more information. What hue, saturation and brightness values and length of lines could hold. Like Ben asked, you could make a life representation of the can of soup. All the way to the recycling bin. You could look up where it came from and see where it went. It’s so sad but I think really amazing to think that a can has a life.

    P.S. I’m listening to Clair De Lune thinking about this can’s life.

  • etb273

    Really great Aaron. Made me think about turning lot’s of things into Beautiful art. I am impressed with your thinking on this one and enjoyed reading/ seeing what you took away from the book. I’d say that was great exploratory reading without “laziness”. Thanks!