Near-field communication, or NFC, is a set of standards for smart phones and other devices to establish radio communication with other devices in close proximity, extending the capability of traditional RFID into a range of different devices with powerful, programmable communications capabilities in addition to more traditional zero-power passive tags.
Some examples of applications for NFC include fast, convenient payment transactions, data exchange, and simple, convenient bootstrap set up of more complex communications such as Wi-Fi. NFC builds upon the established technology of traditional radio-frequency identification (RFID) by enabling two-way communication between endpoints, whereas earlier systems such as RFID smart cards only provide data exchange in one direction.
Although a new technology to most customers, NFC is slowly making inroads to the consumer market – and especially through Android devices. For example – a relatively new feature in the Android operating system, “Android Beam”, introduced with Android 4.0+ running on suitable NFC-equipped hardware, employs NFC in combination with Bluetooth and/or WiFi for easy, convenient exchange of contacts, files, photos or other content between devices such as smart phones that are physically in close proximity without the inconvenience of addressing or network configuration.
Beam combines the convenience of NFC with the relatively high bandwidth of Bluetooth or WiFi connectivity, using NFC to enable Bluetooth on both devices, instantly pair them, communicate the required data, and then automatically disable Bluetooth on both devices. This has been extended further by some manufacturers, for example Samsung.
With their “S Beam” extension of Android Beam, first introduced on their Galaxy S3 smartphone, the system uses NFC to communicate the networking configuration to transparently establish a Wi-Fi Direct connection between the two devices for data transfer. This results in fast transmission speeds between S-Beam equipped devices whilst maintaining a convenient user experience.
Nokia, Samsung, Blackberry and Sony have also used NFC technology for convenient single-tap device pairing between NFC-enabled devices and Bluetooth wireless peripherals such as headsets, media players and speakers.
NFC-enabled devices can be used in contact-less payment systems; replacing, supplementing or consolidating the existing use of NFC in credit and bank cards, public transport ticketing and parking payment systems. As an example of a payment system based around NFC mobile devices, Google Wallet allows consumers to store credit card and loyalty card information in a virtual wallet and access it using their NFC-equipped smartphone or device at terminals that support Mastercard PayPass transactions. Furthermore, NFC technology has also been used by the city of San Francisco for mobile payment of parking meter fees, also providing automated phone reminders of the allowed time remaining.
With the release of Android 4.4, Google introduced a new platform supporting secure NFC-based transactions through Host Card Emulation, or HCE, for payments, retail loyalty programs, access control cards, public transport ticketing and other NFC-based services. With HCE, any app on an Android 4.4+ device can emulate a NFC smart card, allowing users to simply tap their smartphone to make a retail payment, public transport fare validation, or building access authentication using only a single phone instead of a wallet full of many different NFC cards – at least in theory.
However, the use of NFC technology in this fashion is dependent on support from banks and businesses, and an understanding by both companies and consumers that this technology can be deployed securely and reliably. This potential for NFC-enabled devices to act as unified, multi-function electronic identity documents and keycards is one key application area for NFC that is actively being promoted by the NFC Forum.
Smart-phones equipped with NFC can be paired with NFC tags or stickers which can be programmed via the phone to automate various tasks. These programmable tags can provide a fast, convenient change of phone settings when tapped, for example, or allow a text message to be automatically stored and sent when the tag is activated, automatically open a particular website, register attendance at an event or any number of other commands or software applications to be launched on the device.
Customers could use their smart phones to “write” data to NFC-tagged products in a store for example, allowing prospective purchasers to register interest in products, leave comments and reviews or provide their contact information for later followup by the merchant.
Similarly, visitors to museums and exhibits can use NFC enabled phones to tag exhibits with keywords, share their experience via social media, rate individual exhibits and create a personalised poster incorporating their favourite experiences.
With almost 100 million NFC-equipped smart phones estimated to be shipped just over the next year and more than a billion units predicted over the next four years, applications and solutions enabled by NFC smart phones will become more and more commonplace as hardware support becomes ubiquitous.
Similarly, NFC tags themselves are expected to become lower and lower in cost as they are manufactured in ever greater volumes and deployed extensively through products, buildings and appliances. Once NFC tags are ubiquitous throughout homes and buildings, they have a byproduct effect of providing awareness of where the phone is located.
A smart phone may automatically configure its ringer and network settings into “work mode”, “home mode” or “car mode” based on this awareness of its environment, for example, potentially launching particular applications and communicating with other networked devices and appliances when entering each new environment.
Although NFC technology may sound out of reach, nothing could be further from the truth. For example, ST Microelectronics is introducing the M24SR Discovery Kit – for developers interested in using its M24SR dynamic NFC tags for Internet of Things applications. According to ST, the kit contains everything engineers need to start adding NFC connectivity to any kind of electronic device or appliance, from fitness watches and loudspeakers to washing machines and water meters.
And as NFC tags are inexpensive, compact, and free of any power supply requirements in most cases, they provide a very easy, low-cost way to add wireless, distributed programmable intelligence throughout homes and buildings and the built environment. In conjunction with smartphones and portable devices that support NFC, Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy, 3G/4G, WiFi and the like, NFC tags are indirectly connected to large amounts of storage and processing power, user interfaces, the Internet, cloud services and Internet-of-Things networks.
Indirectly, NFC tags have all the same access to computational power and network connectivity that other embedded devices do, but without power requirements, without wires, and in an extremely low cost fashion suitable for ubiquitous deployment in all kinds of environments and products where other embedded computing solutions would not be economically viable – this places NFC solutions in a unique position in the Internet of Things.
Although NFC may seem prevalent in existing consumer devices, you can also add the technology to new and existing products to enhance and simplify end-user and customer experiences. This is where the LX Group can partner with you to develop any or all stages and bring your ideas to life.
To get started, join us for an obligation-free andconfidential discussion about your ideas and how we can help bring them to life – click here to contact us, or telephone 1800 810 124.
LX is an award-winning electronics design company based in Sydney, Australia. LX services include full turnkey design, electronics, hardware, software and firmware design. LX specialises in embedded systems and wireless technologies design.
Published by LX Pty Ltd for itself and the LX Group of companies, including LX Design House, LX Solutions and LX Consulting, LX Innovations.