Colleges Collaborate on Research into Efficiency, Physical Aspects of UPC Methods

September 13, 2017

Molly Jensen, left, and Kaitlin Gallagher
Molly Jensen, left, and Kaitlin Gallagher

A collaboration between professors in business and exercise science is adding knowledge to the research fields of both, as well as practical information for Digimarc Corporation, a corporate sponsor of the McMillon Innovation Studio at the University of Arkansas.

Molly Jensen, a clinical associate professor of marketing in the Sam M. Walton College of Business, and Kaitlin Gallagher, an assistant professor of exercise science in the College of Education and Health Professions, received funding, equipment and products from Digimarc Corporation and the Center for Retailing Excellence. The funding was used to research the effect on cashiers of using three different types of UPC marks. UPC stands for Universal Product Code, a barcode symbol that is widely used across the United States and Europe for tracking items in stores.

"This project started back in April 2016 when my colleague, Raymond Towne, a certified safety inspector, talked to me about how this influences scanning," said Jensen.

Changing the UPC could influence body movements and the muscles that store cashiers use when they scan an item a shopper is buying at the register.

Jensen realized she needed assistance from a researcher with expertise in the physical aspect of the project, and she found Gallagher, whose research agenda focuses on occupational biomechanics. Gallagher studies the causes of overuse injuries in the workplace, conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome that develop over years of repetitive motion. Her research can show how changing movement and muscle activation might help prevent injury caused by cumulative effects.

Motion capture data show a cashier performing a scanning task.
Motion capture data show a cashier performing a scanning task.

Gallagher's lab is equipped with a motion capture system, the same that is used to make three-dimensional characters for movies and video games. Her lab also has an electromyography system, which tracks the electrical activity of muscle and relates this to muscle use. It works similarly to the technology used to gather a heart rate tracing.

Jensen was conducting research in the McMillon lab, which was established last year with a gift from Doug McMillon, chief executive officer of Walmart and a Walton College alumnus, and his wife, Shelley. But, the researchers needed the proper equipment to measure human movement.

So, Gallagher invited Jensen to work with her in the Exercise Science Research Center in the HPER Building. A graduate student and two undergraduates in exercise science assisted the researchers to collect data this summer. They recruited 20 women who have been working as a cashier at least 20 hours per week for the past year. After the students put the cashiers through a brief training session to familiarize them with the equipment and products, the cashiers scanned three sets of products each with a different type of UPC application.

One set of products had one or two UPC marks on their packaging, the traditional method. A second set of products had five UPC marks so that every side of the packaging was covered, requiring less turning and positioning by the cashier during the scanning process.

Digimarc contributed the third set of products, enhanced with Digimarc Barcode, which is an imperceptible barcode repeating throughout product packaging, meaning the cashier doesn't have to turn, or even fully lift, an item in order to scan it. With Digimarc Barcode, the company's goal is to make checkout easier and improve retail efficiencies.

Gallagher uses a system of sensors placed on the body that reflect light from a series of eight cameras mounted in one of the research rooms that emit a light source and then record it. This captures the subject's movements and records them with software Gallagher uses to track motion. Other sensors measure when a muscle is turned on and off, so that they can get a sense of strength used to scan an item.

Digimarc has conducted its own research on Digimarc Barcode, Jensen and Gallagher said, but the company wanted to see what results an outside, independent research project would produce. They also had never investigated the influence of their UPC on worker health. The McMillon lab may do more research later on consumer perceptions of the Digimarc Barcode, Jensen said.

"Digimarc technology alters the color of the packaging a bit, so we may look at whether that affects the overall aesthetics," she said. "Does the aesthetic aspect outweigh price in consumer decision-making?"

Both researchers plan to write articles on the research for submission to journals in the fields of workplace safety, retail and marketing, and applied and industrial ergonomics.

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