Developer. Gamer. Yo-Yo Thrower.

Near Field Communications

Near Field Communications also known as “NFC” is poised to change how the digital world interacts with the physical world (and vice versa). You have already used NFC technology if you’ve used Mastercard “PayPass”, Visa “PayWave” or any other similar ‘tap to pay’ systems – that’s NFC. In a nutshell NFC is simply the transfer of data between two targets – the neat thing is that targets don’t have to be powered, they can be stickers, credit cards, wristbands or virtually anything bigger than a loonie. When one of the targets is passive, the other has to be active, something powered and capable of processing or interacting with the data; something like a smartphone, a kiosk, or debit pad.

Up until recently we’ve only seen very specialized uses: Building/garage access cards, credit card payment systems, transit payment systems. This is about to change. Soon your smartphone will come with an NFC radio and you’ll be tapping your phone on many physical objects you probably wouldn’t have before. I would imagine a standard recognizable icon or image will come to represent that there is an NFC chip embedded in that thing and you can ‘tap it’ with your phone to interact and get a piece of data. For example in the very near future you might be able to:

Tap on a: And get a:
Bus stop sign Schedule and expected times for the next 3 buses
Museum Exhibit Sign Link to a video narrative for that exhibit
Cars Hood Ornament Detailed list of that cars make and model and/or the owners personal URL and contact info
Promotion or ad URL linked to more information, or a coupon, or a video
Cafe/Pub/Stores “Free Wifi” Sign Automatically authenticate and connect to that places WiFi
Product package Automatic “Like” and/or +1 of that product
Another smartphone or NFC enabled device Data link established: what did you want to transfer?! Music? Movies? Pictures? Business cards/contact info?
Any thing Piece of data

In fact, as early as next summer you’ll probably be able to use your Rogers phone to buy Tim Hortons (Timmy’s built the infrastructure for this in 2007). I believe the company Zoompass is also planning a big move with NFC (it is pre-loaded on some Android phones already). The upcoming Interac Flash technology be NFC based as well.

This is only a smattering of what I can think of at the moment, and payments are just the beginning but hopefully you can see just how potentially world changing this new technology is. In some developer forums I see techie geek guys like myself quickly dismissing NFC as a toy or a gimmick to be used with bank cards. I think they are wholly mistaken, NFC represents a shift in how a technologically sophisticated culture interacts physically with inanimate objects.

Let’s get technical

The NFC Forum is a consortium of companies that have banded together to standardize NFC protocols and implementations (Big names like Google, Sony, Samsung — interestingly Rogers and AT&T, but not other media/telecom companies). This is great news for consumers because up until recently NFC has been used in a proprietary way – meaning it couldn’t be easily (or legally) implemented openly by others. NDEF is the protocol that is going to change the world for us. Google’s Android OS and RIM’s newer Blackberry (BBs released after August 2011) smartphones both implement NFC – you’ll have to double check your phone model to see if you have an NFC radio. Currently only the only phones with NFC are: Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus, the Telus/Rogers version of the Samsung Galaxy S II (it is NOT in the Bell version), BlackBerry Bold 9900, BlackBerry Curve 9360 and BlackBerry Curve 9380. If you have any of these phones, you can already play with NFC (Sorry Apple users! No word on NFC in iPhone 5 yet).

Similar in concept, but not quite the same as RFID (they’re more like cousins). NFC operates at 13.56Mhz whereas RFID operates at 125Mhz. NFC targets can have a few more hardware based security methods built in and can also store more data. Although many companies will use the terms NFC and RFID interchangeably, this is technically incorrect. The world of protocols and types of NFC tags is a complicated and messy one. On a high level Broadcom Topaz, NXP Mifare, Sony FeliCa are some of the types – there are a few others. I’ve used Mifare 1K and ultralite tags almost exclusively and they work great.

Right now

Like a bad ass digital graffiti artist, I’m tagging all my favourite spots with Mifare ultralite stickers – right now they’re Foursquare automatic checkin targets, but I have much bigger plans. I want to start tagging everything, as NFC becomes more prevalent there’ll be treats all over the city (maybe country? world?!) for geeks like me to not only see, but contribute to! Right now it seems like a bit of a niche (and it totally is), but I imagine if the iPhone 5 comes with an NFC radio their popularity will explode, otherwise I think it may be a bit slower to gain traction in the mainstream.

If you’ve read this far, you might be interested in watching the Google I/O talk “How to NFC” – it’s aimed at Android developers, but the first 20 minutes are great for everyone because they show off a bunch of NFC use cases.

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