New Online Database Lets Consumers Share Product Information at Point of Purchase

Irvine, Calif., April 4, 2006-  Shoppers deciding what to buy at the supermarket now have a new tool to learn more about products ranging from cans of peas to bars of soap. GreenScanner, developed by UC Irvine researcher Bill Tomlinson, is a public database of product information and opinions that can be accessed from home or by using mobile devices with Internet capabilities such as cell phones and PDAs.

Bill Tomlinson
Bill Tomlinson

Consumers can freely access GreenScanner by visiting Simply type in a product's UPC number and, within seconds, information appears on the screen. GreenScanner tells a shopper which company makes the product and lists other items produced by that manufacturer. What excites Tomlinson, however, is that it also provides the framework for consumers to evaluate and share their own information about products. Tomlinson's vision is that GreenScanner will become a forum for shoppers to read comments on whether products are environmentally friendly, as well as how they taste, whether they work well and if they are a good value.

"GreenScanner will help shoppers decide what to buy before they reach the checkout counter," said Tomlinson, an assistant professor of informatics in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences and of drama in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. "It will be a quick, portable way for them to learn more about a product if, for instance, they are trying to decide between two brands of laundry detergent."

The project is based on a publicly available database of more than 600,000 products, each with its own UPC code. Because GreenScanner is so new, relatively few of these products have consumer reviews, but Tomlinson expects the number of postings will quickly build as word of the site spreads. Examples of products that have been reviewed include Horizon Organic 1% Milk, UPC number 742365264108, and Poland Spring bottled water, UCP number 075720008513.

The accuracy of posted information is not guaranteed because GreenScanner allows anyone to enter information, and no one reviews or edits the contributions. Tomlinson believes there is strength in numbers and that honest ratings will far outnumber insincere ones.

"Many people are excited to contribute information to sites online -- posting reviews on and writing articles for Wikipedia,"

Tomlinson said. "Contributors to GreenScanner can help give other people a little more information that might help them make a decision about what to buy."

Tomlinson named the project GreenScanner because he is concerned about how commercial products affect the environment. He wants shoppers familiar with a product's environmental impact -- how the item is made, delivered or packaged -- to add their knowledge to the database.

Eventually, he hopes to link information from environmental organizations to the site to better educate consumers about the products they buy.

Consumers, Tomlinson says, don't have the financial interest in a product that a manufacturer or store owner might have, allowing them to provide less-biased information about products.

"People have a lot of information at their disposal that could be helpful to others," Tomlinson said. "Getting good reviews on GreenScanner could impact the consumer market, positively affecting a company's revenues."

From his previous projects, Tomlinson knows that research sometimes takes several years to produce public good. This time, he wanted to create something that would have an immediate impact on people's everyday lives.

Using standard Web technology, Tomlinson formatted the site to load quickly and fit well on a small screen. His computer applications allow a variety of portable, handheld devices to access the page easily, including the Palm Treo 650. Directions for using GreenScanner with this device and other PDAs, Pocket PCs and desktop computers are located on the site's home page. In some cases, scanner attachments and cameras on cell phones and PDAs can read bar code numbers, inputting them directly into GreenScanner.

At UCI, Tomlinson is a researcher in the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology and teaches in the Arts Computation Engineering graduate program. Before coming to UCI in 2003, Tomlinson received a doctorate in media arts and sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a master's in experimental animation from the California Institute of the Arts and a bachelor's in biology from Harvard College. His research focuses on computer graphics, human-computer interaction, computer games, interactive animation, environmental education and multi-device systems.

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