NFC-labels communicate with consumers

The internet of things may be closer than you think. The beverage company Diageo and the Norwegian company Thinfilm have unveiled a prototype Johnny Walker Blue Label bottle that wirelessly speaks to consumers’ smartphones. No sensors or batteries required, just a printed label.

The internet of things may be closer than you think. The beverage company Diageo and the Norwegian company Thinfilm have unveiled a prototype Johnny Walker Blue Label bottle that wirelessly speaks to consumers’ smartphones. No sensors or batteries required, just a printed label – albeit one with special capabilities.

The label can tell whether the bottle has been opened and communicate other information to the consumer such as special promotions or drink recipes. The label relies on Thinfilm’s OpenSense technology that uses smartphone’s near field communication (NFC) capabilities. NFC can send signals over a short distance, typically 10 centimeters or less. The customer’s cell phone thus needs to be placed very close to the label. The technology allows Diageo to track bottle movements across the supply chain, in-store and to the point of consumption, with the sensor tags remaining readable even when the factory seal has been broken, providing an additional layer of security in protecting the authenticity of the product.

Printed tags that communicate via NFC are becoming increasingly common and have the potential to replace or at least rival QR codes on products and in printed ads. The creative agency Tomoco has recently shown how NFC can be used effectively in printed advertising.

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While the Johnny Walker bottle is certainly newsworthy, Thinfilm has a variety of uses for its smart labels in mind. The company sees itself working with food distributors who can use their labels to track food shipments. The labels can be programmed to sense if the food is getting too hot or too cold and alert the retailer if the food is in danger of spoiling.

Thinfilm has also developed printed memory labels that can be rewritten. Xerox has licensed the technology for commercial production and plans to print up to a billion labels at full capacity. The labels are intended for luxury goods and pharmaceutical products among other uses.

Thinfilm just won the Flexi Award by the Flex Tech Alliance for its smart label, which is produced with Thinfilm’s printed-dopant polysilicon (PDPs) technology on a roll-to-roll process. Thinfilm says using this process allows the company to manufacture the labels at one tenth of the costs of alternative sensing technologies. The company secured 23 million USD in funding last October, which will enable it to develop the technology even further.