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What do the dashes and dots on barcodes really mean?

You see them all over the place, from cereal boxes to prescription labels, from envelopes to electronics – barcodes are everywhere. But what do those little black lines and dots mean? Barcodes themselves do not contain descriptive information, rather they provide a reference which is scanned and looked up in a database that does contain the descriptive information such as item name, price and quantity. Alternatively a URL does not contain the descriptive information in the website it references.

There are two major types of barcodes – one and two dimensional. One dimensional (1D) are probably more commonly seen, they are on every item you see in the store. 1D barcodes are made of a series of vertical lines (bars) and spaces of varying widths. These bar and space combinations are strung together to represent different characters. Two dimensional codes use a series of dots, blocks and other geometric shapes into a square or rectangular pattern. 2D barcodes are generally able to contain much more information than 1D. Where a 1D barcode such as a UPC code contains 12 digits, a 2D barcode such as a QR code may contain thousands of alpha-numeric characters.

In either case the codes need to be read by something – a reader. Barcode readers act as a translator between the code itself and the data it contains (those 12 digits in the UPC for example). Today you can download literally dozens of apps for your smartphone that will read both 1D and 2D barcodes, but here’s the trick; there are literally dozens of different “languages” of barcodes to translate. Let’s take a look at some of the more commonly used codes.

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