Um, What Is This Thing?

If hearing this question from a teenaged grocery clerk holding up a cucumber leaves you staring in disbelief and worrying about the future of the free world, you're going to love IBM's Intelligent Scale with the company's Veggie Vision software. Unlike a youngster raised on pizza and toaster pastries, this scale not only recognizes most produce—in or out of a plastic bag—but also weighs it and prints a bar-coded price tag, all in a split second, with no time wasted ogling the hot prospect at the next cash register.

Built right into the checkout counter, the Intelligent Scale works its magic with an inexpensive digital camera, a fluorescent light source for consistent illumination, and polarizing filters to eliminate reflections. For each fruit or vegetable plunked down on its glass surface, the camera snaps two images (one with the light on, one with it off) and compares those images to analyze color (saturation and density), shape, texture, and size. The 200 MHz Pentium chip in a typical cash register PC provides sufficient processing power and speed for identification and weighing.

The Intelligent Scale also sports a touchscreen on which logos of similarly shaped veggies display if the scale needs a little help deciding exactly what it's looking at. (Well, without a label, could you tell the difference between Gala apples and Braeburns?) And with that feedback, it quickly learns from its mistakes.

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For shoppers, the technology promises quicker and more accurate checkout, plus fewer of those irritating interactions that can turn a good morning into a grouchy one. For supermarket managers, those same benefits can mean increased profits in an industry notorious for low margins and high turnover. Along with many other technologies, the Intelligent Scale is wowing shoppers in the experimental Future Store operated in Rheinberg, Germany, by METRO Group, the world's fifth largest retailer.

Having qualms about turning hapless teenagers out of their checkout jobs? No worries. They can deliver pizzas. Or design software.

Contact IBM Corp., White Plains, NY; 800-426-4968,

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