Most of the objects we use today are packaged, and the packaging isn’t networked or electronic. It doesn’t have to be: For one, augmenting the packaging with technology gets expensive quickly, especially as you work with economies of scale. And interaction with these objects has always been successfully mediated by the end user: We visually examine seals to determine if the package has been opened or damaged, read labels to see when they were shipped. In the case of technology, the advancements have been in passive computer-readable technology, like barcodes.
At one end of the spectrum are methods for temporarily and passively annotating objects in order that we may better use them. Jan Chipchase writes about a café that serves tea with a sticker advising that the user allow the tea to brew for two minutes. But the sticker is passive: We are left to time brewing on our own. It also expires: There’s no reason to see the information after two minutes have passed. Indeed, its temporariness likely calls attention to it.
Then: non-temporary passive annotation (like “Caution, the beverage you’re about to enjoy is extremely hot”). Small signs, in other words, but signs that don’t expire.
A step above this is active analog annotation. Coors, the brewing company, introduced a can that turns blue when properly chilled, finally relieving Coors lovers of the fear of warm beer. (Although, if you’re drinking Coors, are you really a beer connoisseur? Technology as marketing gimmick.) A more important application is shipping damage indicators: Slap it on a box and see if the box was tipped, shocked, dropped, heated, frozen, or exposed to adverse amounts of humidity. Are shipping employees more careful with packages if they know they’re being monitored? Or is this just expensive peace-of-mind? These indicators, like the Coors can, depend on physical or chemical technology, but the technology is still analog.
So next comes active digital annotation. High quality wine bottles are being shipped with miniature digital thermometers to see if they are exposed to high temperatures during shipping. The information can even be uploaded to a spreadsheet, to show when the exposure occurred. A sufficiently valuable product can absorb the cost of more expensive packaging, especially if that packaging is related to its quality. In a way, this makes perfect sense: Why trust the supply chain when you can monitor them, especially if you’re paying upwards of $100 for a bottle of wine?