Imagine for a moment. You're the manager of a grocery store, one carrying over 300 different items in the produce department alone. (This number is just an estimate, but a study from the Food Marketing Institute in 2010 tallied over 38,000 as the average number of items available in a supermarket.) You have ten different varieties of apples, several of which look very similar, and any number of more exotic items, often unfamiliar even to your checkout clerks.
Most of these produce items carry no identifying bar code, and require a four-digit code entered at check-out for correct pricing. That means supermarket employees have to carry the most commonly used produce codes in their heads, while taking extra time to flip through the master produce list when they encounter an unfamiliar item.
It's a recipe for inefficiency and frustration, and something the grocery industry has grappled with ever since the bar code was introduced forty years ago. And that's where visual pattern recognition technology is filling the void.
Last year, you may have seen a new product called LaneHawk, created to prevent bottom-of-basket losses in retail stores. Originally developed to help soldiers recognize threats in the field, visual pattern recognition technology software was adapted to the supermarket, helping cashiers see cartons of soda and beer left in the bottom of the grocery cart.
Now Japan-based Toshiba Tec is using visual pattern recognition technology to help identify and scan produce items without using bar codes. Like LaneHawk, Toshiba Tec's Object Recognition Scanner identifies grocery items by their appearance. So instead of a laser, the scanner uses a camera.
The camera is designed to remove much of the so-called "background noise" from the picture, focusing closely on objects held near the lens against a neutral black background. Software helps "teach" the bar code scanner to recognize a variety of fruits and vegetables, even when the items are moving past the camera at a fast rate of speed.
Watch the DigInfo video below to see the scanner in action.
With this (bar code) scanner still in development, Toshiba Tec is spending time refining the technology and creating comprehensive software databases of fruits and vegetables. Stay tuned!
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