NFC: Short range, long potential

Near Field Communication users must typically touch one device to another to make a connection. “Touch” applications are not only convenient to use, but also add an inherent level of security, since anyone hoping to scan a device remotely would need to get extremely close.

There’s a huge range of wireless technologies out there: Bluetooth, WiFi, RFID, EVDO and beyond. However, one of the most exciting wireless standards for conducting transactions and transferring data is little known to consumers: NFC, or Near Field Communication.

NFC isn’t likely to remain in the shadows for long: With its support for a broad range of applications, this wireless technology, that operates at 13.56Mhz, is going to be surfacing in more and more places soon. 

What truly makes NFC different is its flexibility. Many wireless technologies involve a relatively passive target (for example, an RFID tag), which interfaces with a more active reader that begins the communication and performs all back-end data processing. According to Mohammad Khan, president of NFC solution provider VivoTech, NFC allows devices to “act as a card (or tag) as well as a reader of a card or tag.” This more robust approach allows NFC to support significantly more applications.  

It’s All in a Touch
Currently four main types of applications are envisioned for NFC. In the most basic, often called “Touch and Go,” an NFC device can simply transmit or capture information in a one-way transfer – similar to RFID. This approach is more than sufficient for opening a door or picking up a prepaid ticket at an event, for example. Other possible uses include downloading a URL from a “smart poster”.  

More complex are the “Touch and Confirm” applications, which involve two-way communication where a user’s device communicates with a reader, then is allowed to confirm by pressing to accept or entering a password. This approach enables the extra level of authentication needed to make purchases, and is actively being used in cell phones, for example, to enable cashless transactions.  

The next level, “Touch and Connect,” allows two NFC devices to actively transfer data, so one user can exchange music, photos or other information with another by simply touching devices. This functionality is perhaps most similar to uses for Infrared today, although faster and easier to use. As Peter Wakin, Director of Corporate Venturing at Nokia says: “If I wanted to pass you some contacts, you could initiate (the process) immediately.” 

Finally, “Touch and Explore” allows one NFC device to navigate another, determine what services the other device offers, and execute. Although few applications take advantage of these capabilities so far, this approach is likely to play a dominant role as NFC takes on a growing role. For example, hotel guests could touch an NFC token to a kiosk and be asked if they want to book a restaurant reservation, download a coupon or manage a loyalty program.  

Calling NFC
The multiple forms of wireless communication available through a cellphone is a perfect complement for NFC. Cellular location services or Bluetooth could eventually be used to let consumers know when a smart poster with a coupon is nearby, for example, then allow them to choose if they want to initiate a download. However, the complexity of the cell phone sector’s business infrastructure also creates some issues. 

“The biggest challenge moving forward is to get millions of NFC mobile phones available in the market and get the premium for NFC technology below USD$2-3,” says Khan. However, given the high potential for NFC, not to mention its strong industry support – Sony, Nokia, Mastercard, Samsung, HP and Microsoft are just some of the members of the NFC Forum – it’s likely to leap those hurdles soon. 

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