The digital workplace conjures up images of trendy office workers, perpetually connected with colleagues and data on multiple devices and working from cafes and airport lounges. But a more dramatic impact of digital enablement is in out-of-sight work spaces where semi-manual labour is carried out — in postal sorting offices and warehouses.

Here, digital in the form of computer vision used together with the ubiquitous smartphone is transforming the humble bar code into a facilitator of dynamic workflows. Scanning a bar code or other visual identifier from a mobile phone can augment reality by invoking a set of instructions or an action that makes life easier for the blue-collar worker.

European mail and e-commerce player PostNL is a pioneering adopter of mobile phones that are used to scan bar codes intelligently and to disrupt physical work processes. The postal player has deployed computer vision to create an enterprise-grade scanning engine, solving logistical problems at customer touchpoints along the last mile of the supply chain.

“When we were rolling it out, a team of managers tested the old native scanning tool versus the new solution and were amazed by how quickly they were able to scan even the most inaccessible bar codes. Time and efficiency are everything to us, so we are delighted,” says Arco Strop, manager, Business Technology, at PostNL.

Typical uses of computer vision include waving the phone across a heap of post on the floor of a van to make sorting more intelligent. Just like a magic wand, the phone flags parcels destined for delivery at a particular location — and potentially this capability can be dynamically linked to a van’s location by GPS.

PostNL has the potential to introduce the smart handling of parcels that are high-value, timed or subject to changes in delivery address, for example. Mobile computer vision deployed on smart devices can augment reality to highlight special-status packages to designated staff, avoiding the security risk posed by visible, printed labels.

The application of a smartphone plus bar code identifier to augment reality is not limited to postal carriers and other product-picking jobs: It can be used in myriad workplaces to connect physical objects to processes. Any object that can be tagged with a bar code is cheaply transformed into a smart object — without any need for an inbuilt chip — and effectively plugged into an internet of everyday objects.

The potential role of such a network in the workplace is vast — and as yet untapped. Imagine a world where office workers point their phone at a faulty printer (tagged with a bar code and thus linked to the internet) in order to book a service call. Or, a world where patients are tagged with a coded wristband and their progress, legally and medically, is tracked through Accidents and Emergencies (A&E) by staff equipped with smartphones.

Post offices may be leading the way in digitally interacting with old-fashioned bar codes, but expect many other workplaces to follow suit.