So what is it?
NFC, which stands stands for Near Field Communication, is a short-range wireless technology that allows a device, such as a smartphone, to interact and communicate with other objects that are also NFC-enabled or have NFC tags.
For example, the new Lumia 920 or Lumia 820 will be able to connect with NFC to a range of accessories, such as the JBL PowerUp Wireless Charging Speaker. There’s no need for wires or doing anything technical – you just tap your phone on the speaker to pair them up.
Beyond, pairing your smartphone with funky accessories, there are plenty of other potential applications for NFC. Every time a Londoner uses their ‘Oyster card’ to travel on the Tube or a bus, they are using RFID, NFC’s older brother.
Among many others, NFC can also be used for:
- Cashless payments
- In advertising on ‘intelligent’ billboards
- As a way of tracking an asset
- Monitoring attendance
- Loyalty or membership cards
To find out more about NFC, we spoke to Derek Greene, the founder of track4services.com, a company based in the UK and Finland that has pioneered the use of NFC in areas ranging from public transport to advertising.
By happy coincidence, Derek started his work on NFC with Nokia, and has a long history with the company, so he should feel right at home here on Conversations.
What are the origins of NFC and how does it work?
It goes back to Michael Faraday, who made lots of discoveries on electricity. He realised that you could send energy over a radio wave.
You use it every day when you use your Oyster card. There is an emission from the Oyster card reader, the yellow plate on the tube or on the bus, which energises the antenna inside the Oyster card.
A forerunner of NFC is radio frequency identification (RFID) and that’s been in use for packaging and logistics for about 30 years but it has been incredibly expensive. For example, you can scan an entrance port to a warehouse and everything that goes through will be automatically read and there will be a big powerful gate emitting this energy.
Now, we all have a mobile phone and that is emitting the energy. So the tag can be fixed because the infrastructure is the phone.
How does NFC differ from Bluetooth?
Bluetooth, let’s face it, can reduce you to tears trying to get it to pair with another item. With NFC, it is always on; the security is provided by the fact you have to be near to something.
Bluetooth typically has a 10m range so you have to have a secure pairing, with passwords or a number. It’s got better but it has always been quite a difficult technology.
Another thing is that it tends to get crowded out – there’s lot of people with Bluetooth and if there’s lot of people around, it tends to stop working.
Will NFC drain your battery if it’s always on? And how closely do you have to hold your phone to connect via NFC?
NFC’s energy consumption is miniscule. It literally has no effect on day-to-day use.
Picture the size of the ping-pong ball – the NFC range is half of that. So you do have to physically touch it but in human terms it is very intuitive. You don’t need to do anything. You just see the NFC icon and you touch it.
In which areas are you seeing NFC being used a lot?
The area with the biggest use of NFC for us is advertising. Billboards will have NFC tags and they are then associated with whatever is on the billboard.
The benefits to the advertising industry is that it is transforming what is a visual paper medium, out of the home, which is great for awareness, but is poor when it has to compete with the likes of Google because it doesn’t have a digital element.
Do you sense that NFC is really starting to take off now?
I don’t think take off is the right phrase but we are at least building the airplanes now. NFC is simple to use, but it is also easy to do it wrong.
I was the first agent to promote NFC in the UK. Nokia trained me up about 5 years ago but the market wasn’t right back then. The tags were very expensive and the phones didn’t materialise so we had a stop-start relationship, which was terrible in terms of trying to attract investment and get the commitments that people have to make.
Having NFC on our phones should make a big difference, right?
It is the convergence of technology on smartphones. Our phones are already crucial to our lives and now with NFC if you happen to see a NFC tag at a bus stop then you can touch it, and there’s no need to download the app or do anything.
For example, lots of young people have grown with their phones and won’t have any problems putting in long URLs manually but for other people it gets to a point where doing things like that becomes a hassle.
NFC is going to be genuinely hassle-free. You touch it and it just works. It is very, very cool.