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Mister Beacon Episode #89

Digital to Physical – The GS1 Digital Link standard

April 08, 2019

This week on Mr. Beacon, we welcome back Dominque Guinard, CTO of Evrything, this time in his capacity as co-chair of the GS1 Digital Link Standard. The GSI Digital Link is defined as a “standard for web-enabling barcodes promises to enhance the shopping experience for consumers around the globe, while strengthening brand loyalty, improving supply chain traceability and efficiencies and bringing mobile phone scanning into the 21st century”. Today products are tagged for many reasons: compliance, marketing/consumer engagement, supply chain,l … The digital link standard allows all of this data to be combined into one URL that can be used at any point in the product life cycle. Global Trade Item Numbers (GTIN), or more commonly recognized as barcodes, are something we may see every day but as a consumers, we don’t have any connection or use for them. The digital link aims to change this by moving these numbers to the web, and allowing everyone to interact with them. Beyond the information used in supply chain, consumers can have a direct link to things like product information and content, expiration dates, nutritional data, warranty registration, or discount offers. Brands can now use QR code, radio-frequency identification (RFID), near-field communication (NFC), and even Bluetooth to deliver information to their customers. Listen in to find out more.


  • Narration 0:07

    The Mr. Beacon podcast is sponsored by Wiliot, scaling IoT with battery free Bluetooth.

    Steve Statler 0:17

    Okay, so Dominque Guinard, thanks so much for returning to the Mr. Beacon podcast. Last time we were talking about your book and about everything, but as well as being the CTO of everything, you are the co chair of the GS one digital link, standard working group. And I guess the standard has been out for what how long since last year is

    Dominique Guinard 0:45

    in August 2018.

    Steve Statler 0:48

    Okay. Well, I appreciate you're suggesting we talk about it. And I think it's a great idea. It's not specific to Bluetooth beacon technology, but it definitely has a relevance. Tell us why people should care about this GS one digital link standard.

    Dominique Guinard 1:14

    So I'll start to tell you why they should care overall, and then maybe why I think it's relevant also to the Bluetooth world, right? Yeah. So starting with overall what what is it trying to was trying to do, it's, it's basically trying to put an end to preparatory encodings to put web addresses or all kinds of identifiers on products. So it's, it's an attempt to standardize the way you describe a product on the web. And the way you describe a product on the tags so that consumers can directly interact with these products through through a standard that gives each product a unique identity. So it's interesting because in, for instance, in the marketing world, each new campaign on a on a on a set of products requires basically a new tag, right, and you have a proliferation of different tags, you have one for a marketing campaign, you might have one for compliance reasons, you might have one for supply chain, reading, reading the product and supply chain. That means much more real estate on the product, it means also a lot of confusion, as in what which to actually use in which context. So there was a thinking that actually we could all use, we can merge them all into web address that would be unique to, to the product. And this is what the digital link standard is about. Now, in the in the beacon space, those are quite relevant because beacons can advertise URLs. And these URLs can be related to products. And there is no standard way of relating a URL to a product, once there is this standard way. And this is what the just one digital link basically offers, then it opens a whole range of possibilities, especially in terms of, you know, use cases across different domains across across supply chain, consumer engagement, etc, etc.

    Steve Statler 3:22

    Very good. Yeah, you gave an example of all these different applications that can be unified with a single tag rather than having one breach and one of them was compliance. Can you explain what you mean by compliance in this context?

    Dominique Guinard 3:38

    So there there are a number of, of new laws and new regulations being in the US or in Europe. Also in China around, for instance, around CPG products. So I mean, to give you an example, in in, in pharma, for instance, there is a big trend and certain regulations in Europe whereby older packs of of drugs need to be serialized. So that's one example that will require a particular tag. To give you another example, in the CPG world, there is much more pressure lately in the US, but also in Europe, to have very clear nutritional facts. nutritional facts are also accessible on the web in the digital world, as most people now check their products in the digital world. And that also requires a special kind of a special kind of tag. Right now there's a there's a standard by GMA called Smart Label, which explains how you should basically represent the nutritional facts of of a CPG product on the web. But there's no thing that tells you what the tag should be like, right? So you end up having different tags for each of these different compliance stories. And then you have more tags for supply chain and even more tags when you want to do things like consumer engagement and marketing campaigns.

    Steve Statler 5:05

    So tell us a bit about the nuts and bolts of what this URL is that is describing a product is it? Is the actual is all of the information encoded in an extremely long URL? Or how does it work?

    Dominique Guinard 5:22

    Well, so how we started is basically we looked at what's out there in terms of identifying products. And the most well known way of identifying the product is this one. That's the one the barcode, right takes different forms in Europe and in the US, but it's essentially what we call a GTIN, right, a global identification number for a product. This has a number of limitations. First of all, it identifies the class of products. So it identifies, you know, this type of, of product, but not the one I have in my hands. Right. The second problem is that it's it's a code that machines in the supply chain understand. But we as consumers cannot do anything with that code, right? Our phones don't understand that code. That code is not quite available on the web. And so we can't really start an interaction with it.

    Steve Statler 6:18

    For those that are listening to this podcast, as opposed to watching, so you just basically took our label from a Coca Cola bottle, it's got a 1d barcode, and it's got a bunch of numbers on so which mean absolutely nothing that that barcode, how does that relate to Gs? One, I'm going to take us off a bit of a tangent but this is a GS one standard. I was in Australia, I saw a big building with GS one on it, I hear about this thing, but who are GS one? And how does the digital link standard fit with all the other things that GS one does.

    Dominique Guinard 6:57

    So GS one is basically a set of member organizations, they have a member organization, in many, many countries, I think it's the the the international organizations with the most countries represented in the world, actually, even more than the UN or other big organizations, as the organization of Commerce, the organization of global commerce, right? These different countries came together to set standards of on how to do global commerce, right? How to identify products, how to, you know, have standards, standardized ways of expressing the data and the identifiers. And so essentially, what JSON delivers at its core is, are are these numbers, right? These numbers for the products, they manage the company part of these numbers, as well as the product part of these numbers. And they issue these numbers. So if you're a brand and you create a new product, you purchase a set of numbers from a member organization, where you're operating. So you would for instance, buy it in the US right now I'm in Switzerland, I would buy it in Switzerland. But so far, this one is actually massive, right? I think you have around 5 billion scans of JSON identifier a day. And most big companies out there, even small ones have JSON identifiers. Whenever you push a product in the real world, you need to have this one identifiers. The problem is they were not really linked to the app, right? They existed in this parallel world, the world of supply chain, the world of business, but they were not really linked back to the world of consumers. And to the web, right? The proof is that probably you and I, before we started to look deeper at GS one, we didn't know anything about these codes. We just see them but we don't know anything about them.

    Steve Statler 8:49

    And they manifest themselves as barcodes and also an RFID, right?

    Dominique Guinard 8:55

    Yes, yeah, barcodes, barcodes RFID, as well. Yeah. That's that's usually how you how you see them and you can see them in different forms of barcodes, 1d barcodes, but also 2d barcodes like data matrix, QR codes and different order forms actually.

    Steve Statler 9:15

    Okay. And then let's just say a bit more about this GTIN thing. So this was this is a number that you look at it and you can't really understand what it is it describes categories of products, but does it actually define us? So could I read that GTIN Number No. Oh, this is a this is this is a certain kind of Coca Cola. It's a 12 ounce bottle or whatever. What does that number? Yeah. Tell you?

    Dominique Guinard 9:47

    Yeah, I mean, as a human, probably not unless you know all the details by heart, hopefully not. But obviously a machine would, would be able to extract that So these numbers are very well structure, they start with a with a country code, followed by a company prefix, and then followed by a number that that expresses the product, the product identification, yes, you will be able to know which country it comes from, you will be able to know which company it comes from. And eventually you will be able to know, what's the product, but again, usually at what we call the T SKU, so at the at the generic product level, not at the not at the instance level. There are some JSON standards that also address the instance level, those are the RFID standards, etc, standard electronic product code, that's then a serialization of a product. So you also have, you also have a serial number for the product you actually have in your hands.

    Steve Statler 10:53

    Okay, and so this digital link standard encompasses both of those realms, it actually identifies a specific product, does it?

    Dominique Guinard 11:01

    Yeah, so the digital link doesn't need to identify a specific product. But I believe in a number of exciting use cases it will need to, but it also supports identifying a range of products, or the digital in brings to the table is it really it moves these these, these statements from the world of supply chain to the web, basically transforms these numbers into URLs. Now, that seems like a small thing is actually not huge. If you look at the standard, it's not saying it was easy to write it, but it was one of the fastest, fastest standard in terms of from beginning to the ratification at JSON. So it's it's it's a simple concept, just turn these numbers into URLs. But it is extremely powerful when you think about it, because it means now you can encode them in a QR code. And guess what millions of phones out there can read QR codes natively. As you might know, iOS phones, for instance, with the camera app, you can directly pointed at a QR code, it will decode the URL, just by turning it into a URL. Now all iPhones can interact with it can be related back to the beacon wall beacons can broadcast URLs, or they can broadcast GTINs, because no one would know what to do with that. But when they broadcast the URL, you can go to that URL, and then you can retrieve content that's related to a product. So that makes this standard much more accessible. And it also allows merging the two walls of the supply chain and the wall of consumer engagement into one single tag.

    Steve Statler 12:44

    And let's go back to what's actually in this URL. It's it's a hierarchy, which describes things is all the information in the URL or is it up in some server somewhere.

    Dominique Guinard 12:56

    So you can choose what you want to put in the URL. So typically, the URL would contain a GTIN. And sometimes it would contain a serial number. And it can also contain more extensions, all these extensions are standardized in the JSON world. So for instance, it could, it could contain a sell by date, or it could contain a size of the product or weight of the product, or all of the all of the standardized fields that are supported by JSON. So you can make it as complete as you want, the problem is going to be one of size, right? Because the URL grows as you add more and more. And that might be a problem. When you print the QR code in a small surface, it might also be a problem. For instance, when you broadcast the URL from a beacon. This is why also we're working on a on a second part of the standard, which will be about compression so that we can compress these URLs, they will still be valid URLs, but they will be compressed in a using an algorithm that can do offline decompression. So that you can basically have more efficient ways of encoding these URLs.

    Steve Statler 14:08

    So it will at the moment, you would probably end up with a URL, which is too big to go into a Bluetooth beacon advertising packet, I'm guessing with today's version of the standard,

    Dominique Guinard 14:22

    potentially, yes, I mean, I don't know by heart, how big you can go in terms of advertising packets, maybe you know, and

    Steve Statler 14:29

    they'll have the order of 37 bytes so so presumably what you can do is today, you can take that and just put it through a URL compressor and then you kind of hopefully get to what you would need to turn that into something that would be accessible.

    Dominique Guinard 14:49

    Yeah, I think was 37 Bytes going beyond the data and would be would be hard indeed. Taking an option off the shelf existing URL compression is, is an option. But it's a bit sad because you lose the the opportunity of decoding what's in there, right, which is why the standard itself is now evolving into also a compression standard. And that's going to be, that's going to be very powerful.

    Steve Statler 15:18

    Okay, so I have one of these URLs, it's encoded in this 2d barcode QR code. I scan it on my phone, and I go to what's the website that I go to when I do this? Who's hosting it.

    Dominique Guinard 15:37

    So basically, anyone can host it. And there is part of the specification, that's called the resolver specification, this there was a tiny part of that specification in the first ratified standard. But in the second version, this is describing more details, how you basically serve the content, the protocol to serve the content at the back of one of one of these digital links. But basically, anyone can, can can install a resolver. It could be, it could be a brand, it could be just one themselves, one of the member organizations, which could be a service provider, pretty much anyone running one of these servers, okay.

    Steve Statler 16:23

    And you're co chair of this group, what what are the other who your fellow chair, or what are the organizations that have led this and whose need to give me an exhaustive list, but what sort of companies have been working on this standard.

    Dominique Guinard 16:43

    So the staff really generated a lot of traction, and the size of the working group doubled, or even even more than this in the second phase, so it really generated a lot of traction. And I think everyone in the industry is pretty well represented. So from very big retailers, to very big brands, to solution providers, printers, tag manufacturers. So it's, it's a pretty big group. And, and I think all parties are represented.

    Steve Statler 17:19

    But I thought I remembered saying that Walmart, were one of you're working with someone from Walmart on the

    Dominique Guinard 17:27

    one of the co chairs was Walmart, and

    Steve Statler 17:31

    not to pick them out as but but it just kind of gives you a sense of the level of gravity and so forth. So why does, why does your company everything care about this? What were you doing before the standard existed? And how does this change what you do?

    Dominique Guinard 17:51

    So basically, what we were doing was exactly that, except in a proprietary manner, right. And we've been talking to GS one for a while about bringing their identifiers to the web. As a matter of fact, when it was a researcher at the auto ID labs at MIT, and eth, the auto ID labs are the labs co financed by Gs one, the research labs, we were already talking about that back then. It took a while to really become a reality. But through companies like everything and others that were putting proprietary encodings on codes all the time, it became clear for GS one that this was a missed opportunity. And we contacted them about creating a standard and then we were like, You know what, we're actually forming a group do you want to co chair it, and then everything accelerated. And within six months, we had the first draft standard, which is very, very exciting.

    Steve Statler 18:51

    And how are things going in terms of adoption, who's using it now.

    Dominique Guinard 18:58

    And adoption is has started now obviously, one of these global business standards takes a while for for mass scale adoption, the barcode 1d barcode took many, many years before it became what it is today. And before it became so ubiquitous, but it has started the first products that that actually featured digital links are hitting the market. For instance, we're working with with a Salmaan company Norwegian salmon company called movi beginning of this week, they launched the first, the first sell mums that are actually featuring a digital link. And this digital link is used for quite an interesting user experience you can scan it and you know exactly where the sun monk comes from. You can exactly follow the life of the salon and and know where where the good is coming from now that's the consumer experience but it is also compatible in the supply chain. So this code can also be scanned into supply chain for basically routing the settlement through the supply chain. So that that would be one example. We are also working with apparel brands in that space at everything, apparel brands that will put digital links on their on their apparel items. Also in format, there are no pilot programs running on the digital link, and several retailers that started adopting it as well.

    Steve Statler 20:29

    Excellent. Very good. While Um, is there anything else we've missed out anything else we should cover in terms of introducing people to what you guys have been working on?

    Dominique Guinard 20:43

    No, I think I think that's a good a good summary, you know, it's it. It's it's a small change, and but it actually could spark revolution in terms of identifying products in terms of consumers being able to interact with products.

    Steve Statler 20:58

    And if I'm, if I'm a brand, or if I'm building systems for brands, how do I get involved? How do I kind of go to the next level in terms of learning about this and adopting the standard.

    Dominique Guinard 21:14

    So you can join the working group, basically, any GS, one member can join the working group, and that's most brands out there. And even no GS one members can join, you can download the standard, which is available on the GS one website. And you can get started, it's actually fairly easy to get started in terms of how to encode your your existing GTS into a digital link. Then if you want to implement a resolver, you can also go to specifications, or you can work with service providers such as everything to basically use the the results implemented by these companies for your products, so it's actually fairly straightforward. It's a very straightforward process to deploy the digital link.

    Steve Statler 22:04

    Wonderful. Well, Dominic, thanks very much for coming back on the podcast. This was really useful.

    Dominique Guinard 22:10

    Thanks for inviting