In the realm of new technologies, near field communication (NFC) is not a new or sexy concept, but it does have clear potential and practical uses. This is why it’s been holding the attention of a slew of big-name companies for a long time. Nokia, Sony, and Royal Philips Electronics founded the NFC Forum in 2004 in order to promote the short-range wireless connectivity technology. Samsung, Motorola, Microsoft and more than 140 other organizations all joined the party shortly after.
NFC allows a device, usually a mobile phone, to collect data from another device or NFC tag at close range. In many ways, it’s like a contactless payment card that is integrated into a phone. In other ways, it’s similar to Bluetooth, except that instead of programming two devices to work together, they can simply touch to establish a connection.
A year after Nokia released the first commercial version of an NFC-enabled phone in 2007, the NFC forum instituted an annual global competition to award the best ideas for applications of NFC, and soon after, trials of NFC products started taking place everywhere from Malaysia to Germany. More than 100 NFC pilot projects have now been undertaken all over the world, and like any technology, NFC has taken some time to gain traction, but it’s on track to go mainstream soon.
“I would say we’re in the early stages where we step from pilot roll-outs [of NFC technology]… into mass market roll-outs,” says Peter Preuss, the NFC Forum Marketing Committee Chair. “And I would say that this will happen within the next 18-24 months.”
Here are six ways that NFC could have the most impact.
1. Contactless Payment
Unlike many other wireless technologies, NFC has a short range of about 1.5 inches. This makes it a good choice for secure transactions, such as contactless credit card payments. MasterCard and Visa are both members of the NFC Forum, and both companies have been involved in pilot programs that use NFC-enabled phones as a flash payment option. Phones could “tap and go” using infrastructure already in place for credit card systems such as MasterCard’s PayPass program or Visa’s payWave.
Two MIT students have also come up with a way for the mobile phone to replace customer loyalty cards. Their application Eclectyk, which was submitted in the 2009 NFC Forum competition, would not only store credit card information, but also automatically select the right customer loyalty card information for your purchase.
The “digital wallet” concept could extend to coupons and other offers. The startup MoLo Rewards recently launched NFC-based coupon programs in San Diego and Toronto. Consumers can use the site to download coupons, which they exchange by having their phone swiped at the point of purchase. Since NFC-enabled phones aren’t widely available in the United States, the company has started its program by providing radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags that can be attached to the back of the phone. The retailers benefit from being able to track who their coupons are sent to and how they are used. “Want to send a coupon to a consumer who purchased a box of cereal on the 21st of December at 11am EST?” the company asks on its website. “MoLo Rewards can provide you with the capability to do just that.”
NFC works with most contactless smart cards and readers, meaning it could easily be integrated into the public transit payment systems in cities that already use a smart card swipe. In 2008, German rail operator Deutsche Bahn launched an NFC-ticketing pilot program in which 200 travelers touched their phones to an NFC tag when they boarded the train and then to another when they got off. The fare was calculated and added to their monthly bill. In January 2010, the successful program was expanded to an additional 3,000 travelers. Madrid plans to start a similar pilot program with its bus system in 2010.
3. Health Care
Not only can NFC tags provide medical professionals with information about what treatments a patient should receive, but they can also keep track of when nurses and doctors have checked in with that patient and when. Each time the tag is scanned, the information about who scanned it and when can be transferred to a database. In addition to improving treatment, NFC tags also have potential in the research realm.
A winner of last year’s NFC Forum’s 5,000 Euro prize was a program that helps track patients in low resource areas, and is currently being used in a pneumonia study of young children in Pakistan. Each child is given a bracelet with an RFID tag on it. The tag is scanned every time the child visits a participating health care organization. The clinical and laboratory data associated with that patient is collected and posted to a secure server in real-time.
4. Ease of Use
If NFC-enabled phones become prevalent, you’ll likely be able to initiate a two-player game by touching your phones together. You’ll be able to link a headset to your phone or print a photo just by touching your device to a printer. A second-place winner in the 2009 NFC Forum competition developed a touch-dial system for people who have trouble making phone calls. The user is able to tap a photo of the person he wants to call. The embedded NFC tag in the photo transmits the proper number to the phone automatically.
5. Smart Objects
An NFC tag often contains information like a phone number or URL. One of the largest series of experiments that uses phones to pick up information from tagged locations is SmartTouch, a project funded under the European ITEA research program between 2006 and 2008. Most of the trials took place in Oulu, Finland, where the city installed about 1,500 “infotags” — in buses, at bus stops, the theater, a restaurant, and a pub — that could be read with a mobile phone. For instance, theater patrons could not only use their mobile phones as tickets, or to order refreshments, but they could also scan tagged posters for more information about plays.
For another project, infotags were installed in schools. Students could get their individual daily schedule, announcements, and information about homework by waving their phones past the tags. A trial held in one pub allowed customers to tap cards with their NFC-enabled phones for more information about products.
NFC may have similar applications as bar codes do now. You can put one on a poster and let pedestrians scan it on their phones for more information. But being able to add more information to any object by integrating a tag has led to some interesting applications that go far beyond billboards. A company called Objecs, for instance, sells an NFC tablet for gravestones. Touching an NFC-enabled phone to the Personal Rosetta Stoneprovides additional information about the deceased.
6. Social Media
Before Foursquare took off, a German company called Servtag was working towards a similar concept for NFC-enabled phones called Friendticker. The company applied more than 250 NFC-tag stickers at various locations in Berlin that users would swipe their phones past in order to alert their friends that they were “checked in” at that location.
While Foursquare may have stolen the thunder for location-based networking, there are still plenty of social media applications for NFC in the works. Last year, a German university (Technische Universität München) submitted a prototype to the NFC Forum competition that integrated with Facebook. The application,NFriendConnector, allowed people who met in a physical space to exchange profile data through their phones. Their respective statuses would automatically be updated (for example, “I just met so and so”) and they could choose to include their location (“I just met so and so at this bar”). Instead of stalking a new acquaintance’s profile after a night out, this application provides an option to run a matching method based on variables the user provides (such as interest, dislikes, and hobbies) while still chatting with them in the bar