NFC Technology & Costanza's Wallet

February 22, 2011 Pivotal Labs

In a classic episode of Seinfeld, George pulls out his wallet, almost bursting at the seams, stuffed with coupons, foreign currency, and loyalty cards. An emerging technology called Near Field Communication (NFC) may be able to help poor George out.

NFC is a short-range wireless technology, originally intended to mediate secure, contactless payment (credit and debit). To improve security, NFC requires the “initiator” (or reader) to be within approximately 4cm of the NFC “target” (or tag). NFC is not actually a new technology, but is based on variants used in Europe and Asia to facilitate purchases at vending machines and more, through ones mobile phone. Ars Techica’s NFC primer provides an excellent in-depth technical dive. Recently, there has been a fair amount of buzz surrounding NFC, as support has been added to the Android platform and is strongly rumoured to be included in Apple’s iPhone 5.

As mentioned, one of the original drivers for NFC is to provide a secure, contactless payment solution, perhaps eventually allowing the user to leave their wallet at home. Obviously, NFC may also provide a streamlined solution for loyalty cards, allowing you to collect those prized points while leaving the stack of cards at home. Maybe someday you’ll even be able to board the bus without having to fish for those tiny transit tokens.

NFC offers to enable some other exciting use cases. Imagine being able to check out equipment, books, etc., by simply firing up an app on your smart phone and scanning the NFC tag on item when you pick it up. Or, perhaps one day you’ll be able to be able to scan the NFC tag attached to a physical paper document to quickly download the virtual copies and all the relevant data and models associated with the document (the physical copy becomes your passport to a richer, more detailed virtual version). Interested in watching a trailer for the movie on a poster in front of you? Scan the embedded NFC tag and have the trailer automatically play on your smart phone.

NFC also promises to augment current location-based services. GPS allows your smart phone to determine your location down to the 10s of meters, but NFC, due to its short-range nature, can precisely place you. Imagine visiting a museum and wirelessly scanning the NFC tag on the exhibit in front of you, unlocking further multimedia data regarding the item you’re standing in front of. Using location, NFC can also help to simplify some security systems. Perhaps one day, when visiting a client site, you’ll be able to scan an NFC tag in the boardroom to gain access to the secure, guest Wi-Fi (this could actually provide stronger security than a traditional fixed access password since the Wi-Fi password could automatically change every day, but seamlessly when scanned provide the correct password).

With any new technology, it can be difficult to tell what will be the actual “killer app”, or whether it will simply be roadkill on the windshield of progress. NFC offers some potentially compelling use cases that can compliment the existing hardware in the modern smart phone. At Xtreme Labs, we are working hard behind the scenes and using our internal expertise to enable some of these unique applications of NFC. Perhaps the future George Costanza will be able to lighten the burden on his poor wallet.

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