One of the technology advances that is going to slowly but surely revolutionise the way our world works is near field communication (NFC, see wikipedia for more details). NFC is contactless technology that requires a reader and a device to be less than 10cm away from each other. As such, it is fairly easy to secure (much easier than Bluetooth, for example). It is very likely that NFC will become ubiquitous in mobile phones, allowing us to just wave our phone close to another object, collecting and/or sending data.

It isn’t new technology – Nokia, Sony, and Royal Philips Electronics founded the NFC Forum in 2004. Samsung, Motorola, Microsoft and more than 140 other organizations all joined the Forum shortly after. In November, 2010 Google announced that the Android will support NFC, and in January 2011 it was reported that Apple was actively pursuing development of a mobile payment system employing NFC. New generations of iPhone, iPod and iPad products will be equipped with NFC capability.

The many uses of NFC

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, trialed in Oulu, Finland, where the city installed about 1,500 “infotags” — in buses, at bus stops, the theater, a restaurant, and a pub. 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.

NFC works with most contactless smart cards and readers, so it could easily be integrated into public transport payment systems in cities that already use a smart card swipe, such as London’s Oyster card (which is currently based on RFID). In 2008, Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s train operator, piloted an NFC-ticketing program in which travelers touched their mobile 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 phone bill. Madrid piloted a similar system for the city’s buses in 2010.

Other applications in the future could include:

  • Electronic ticketing – airline tickets, event tickets, etc
  • Electronic money – anyone who currently accepts credit cards and has a swipe machine would conceivably use NFC and take payment directly from mobile phones
  • Identity documents
  • Electronic keys – replacements for physical car keys, hotel room keys, and even house and office keys
  • It can be used to configure and initiate other wireless network connections such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi
  • Link a headset to your phone or print a photo just by touching your device to a printer
  • A company called Objecs sells an NFC tablet for gravestones. Touching an NFC-enabled phone to the grave provides additional information about the deceased

But the applications can also be interactive. Each time a tag is scanned, the information about who scanned it and when can be transferred to a database. If a customer in-store is using a smartphone to compare prices online, and NFC tag can interact with them and offer them something directly in your store.

Imagine yourself using your phone to interact with posters or magazines and such interaction initiating a request or search for related information in real-time.

In hospitals, an NFC tag attached to a patient can provide medical professionals with information about what treatments a patient should receive. But maybe more significantly, they can also keep track of when nurses and doctors have checked in with that patient.

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