Creating a comfortable world around you with NFC


Today, our subject is NFC.

 

For those who don't know exactly what it is, NFC is the abbreviation of "Near Field Communication", a set of standards based on RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) which base themselves on the communication between both sides when they come to a distance of 1-2 cm one from the other. This principle also sets the fact that there is no need for one of the sides to have its own energy source, since it can get the energy it needs for each transmission by induction from the other side. This last fact is allowing NFC to begin developing into a world of interesting applications.

When NFC was first launched, the main use advertised for it was on mobile payments. "This is the technology that will replace our plastic credit cards", he heard. That's due to the fact that our phone is always with us and it is an unique accessory which can identify each one of us. 

In fact, what we see two years later, is that the technology is having some trouble in its mass adoption for this purpose. We still lack a critical mass of businesses which already support NFC payments on their shops, and only now we are beginning to see a real growth in the number of different phone models which include the NFC technology.

Meanwhile, the human mind got in action, and if we already have an interesting functionality in our phone which is not being of such as much use as we expected, why not invent some other uses for it?

This is what this article is about. We will review the different kinds of uses we can make of NFC, how to use the technology, what are NFC tags, how we read them and how we prepare them to use. Be ready also for a demonstration video.

More after the break.

What is an NFC Tag?

An NFC tag is a surface of any type with an embedded NFC circuit which when accessed by an NFC supporting device will transmit to it a set of instructions or information. It can be a keychain, a shirt-pin, a refrigerator magnet, an area in a credit-card terminal, or in its simplest form, a label.

Look at the image above. You are looking at two NFC labels on a strip. This is usually the way we buy them. Though they look like two regular white labels, if you pay more attention you will see the signs of the electronic circuitry which is glued below it at the side of the glue.

Here it is the the place to stress that not all NFC tags or labels are born alike. First, there is the fact that in the thin labels, the circuitry is open at the side of the glue, so these won't work if placed over a metalic surface. This means that for metalic surfaces you need thicker tags with the circuitry embedded inside. Secondly, there is the size of the memory: the labels you see in the pictures above are of type NTAG203, and they can store 144 bytes of information (actually 137 bytes are available to the end user). It looks small, but it can do a lot when we are talking about instructions and information like a URL. However, storing there, for example, contact data like a name, two phone numbers and one email address will be impossible since this info is larger than 137 bytes. For these purposes, there are labels with larger storage sizes, like 700 bytes, 1KB, 2KB, 4KB and 7KB. Surely, prices will vary depending on the amount of storage.

The most common tags found for sale are the NTAG203 from the picture and the MIFARE 1KB, which will be more than enough for most uses. Today, it is very easy to find NFC tags and labels for sale; one can find them easily with a search in Ebay or in Amazon.com. Prices will vary between $8-$15 for a pacakge of ten labels of type NTAG203, and about the same prices for a package of 5 labels of type MIFARE1K. So my recommendation is to have a larger number of the NTAG203 tags for general purpose, and a smaller number of MIFARE 1K tags only for those cases in which the smaller memory tags won't be enough.

Some creative uses for NFC

So let's try to see how NFC can be used to automate some tasks in our lives and make them more comfortable. Please note that these are only a limited number of ideas, and you can use your imagination to find a whole lot of additional uses.

1. Personal uses

a. File transfer

The Android Beam, or Samsung's own S-Beam, have been one of the main advertisers of the "coolness" of Android devices when compared to the iPhone. The idea is that whenever one desires to transfer some kind of file (a song, a picture, a video, etc) to another device, he can just choose the file, touch the backs of the devices one to the other, confirm, and then the file will be sent, through a private wifi transfer between both devices.

b. Execute a sequence of operations in the device

In this case we will store the sequence of operations to be executed in an NFC tag. This sequence can cause changes in the device modes, connection to a network, execution of an app, etc. You can create a label which turns off all communications and stick it at the place where you usually put your device for night recharging, you can create a label for your office door which toggles on/of your wifi and sound, or a label for the car which toggles on/off bluetooth and turns on the navigation software, and so on... Possibilities are limitless.

c. Timer trigger

How many times have you turned on your oven or your laundry machine and couldn't anymore be quiet without the pressure of having to remember when to turn-off the oven or not to forget the laundry in the machine? Well, easy solution now: stick at the machines a label that triggers the timer in your phone. Now just set the time for turning it off, and the alarm will come off when the time comes.

d. Door lock

This is still a little far away, but this company is already open for presales of a Bluetooth/Wifi/NFC supporting lock which can be locked and unlocked using your phone. It will sell for $179.

e. Connection to other devices

If you have a set of Bluetooth loudspeakers or a DLNA Streamer, and you want to immediately connect to them, this is an easy task from this day on. Just stick on them a label with the connection sequence and you are ready to go.

2. Professional uses

a. NFC Business Card

I believe that in the future it will be easy and costless to print business cards with an embedded NFC circuit containing the same information presented by the business card. Import of the contact data will be very easy at these times.

Meanwhile, while these cards are not easy to find and not cheap to buy, I will suggest you a workaround. Burn a label with your contact data and stick it to the back of one of your business cards, keeping this card in your wallet separately from the others. Should you be out of business cards or simply find someone who has an NFC enabled phone, you can always suggest him to import directly the data instead of staying with a regular card.

b. Time management

If you are project managers or any kind of professionals that need to keep time spent on specific projects or customers, this is for you. Print a label with the sequence to open your time management software, go into each specific project (or customer), and start/stop counting time. Stick the appropriate label in the first page of each project/customer folder. Now, every time you take the folder, pass your phone through the label to start registering time, and at the end of the work, before you close the folder, scan it again to stop counting.

In the continuation I will talk about a specific software for Android phones that comes ready for it.

3. Commercial uses

a. Terminal for automated payments

As said, this was the first planned use for this technology. From now on, payment terminals and ATMs could have, additionally to the credit card inserting area, an NFC area for supporting NFC phones or cards.

b. Vending machines

This is a variation of the ATM solution. Put NFC areas in vending machines, and together with the credit card software on the phone (or specific software by the vendor, or connected to some billing organization like the mobile operator) anyone with an NFC enabled phone will be able to buy on your machine.

c. Dynamic advertising

We see ads almost in every place we go. Shops, supermarkets, shopping centers, even bus stations, they are all full of posters and banners advertising things. Now, if the advertiser cares to prepare one or more interesting landing pages for their ad in the internet and embed NFC circuits with the URLs of the landing page(s) in specific places of the posters and banners, they will be able to create an engaging experience to the user that goes far away from simply reading a banner. 

d. Wifi connection automation

People who own a wifi network at home, at the office, or at a shop or cafe, often want to protect their networks and yet give fast and simple access to customers or friends - and it would be best without revealing the network password.

Well, now they can burn a label with the connection sequence (including the password) to the network and stick it in a place where customers and friends can reach with their phones. If we are talking about a cafe or restaurant, it could be the menu cover, for example. For each establishment there will be best options on where to place it.

e. Employee ID and presence control

Today most employers give each employee a card, and keep a presence clock in the door of each plant, or department of the company. A modern NFC approach for that would be to give the employee a download for the presence and timekeeping software in his phone and place a label in the door which activates the software. In the screen, all the employee would need to do would be to press the right button, "In", "Out", or "Break". Field employees could have a similar sticker on their cars.

f. Substitute for our old plane boarding cards

Nowadays, some airlines are already offering to use a barcode in the phone instead of the paper boarding card. The point is that they still have to issue a different barcode for each flight we check in to.

Another option would be to adapt their systems to find the traveller's reservation at the gate or airport entry using only their frequent flier numbers or their passport numbers, which are registered anyway. In this case, every traveller could receive an NFC sticker only once for all his flights, and be identified by the stickers for every flight he checks in, according to his data in the sticker, the date and the place.

So, in general there are many opportunities, and I am sure that your imagination will take you far away to new ideas in which you could use this technology to make your own life more comfortable.

But how do we do it?

Now what is left is to understand how we use it and how we can make that happen.

For this purpose, I have prepared a 16-minute video which demonstrate several uses of NFC, and how to burn NFC tags in order to get to good results.

Don't worry if some parts seem to pass too quickly, in the continuation I put in writing what I explained there. The video is important in order to give the feeling of how easy and fast it can be.

So here it is:

Burning the tags

So how do we burn a tag? well, it is very simple. Maybe you don't know, but your NFC-enabled phone is able to burn NFC tags. All you need is the labels or tags, and the appropriate software. And surprise!, they exist and are provided to you without cost at Google Play.

There are a number of different apps for specific tags and for general use, but I have chosen the two that I believe are the best among them in order to focus on these two. The first is NFC Task Launcher and the second is TagWriter. They both do approximately the same, but each one has some features that the other doesn't have, so at least in the beginning I recommend you hold both of them in your device. You can decide later what to keep and what you.

Additionally, at the end I will also describe an NFC add-on to a time keeping application, which demonstrates the way that software makers can add NFC functionality to their applications by planning simple NFC addons to operate them.

So let's take a look at the apps.

NFC TASK LAUNCHER

This is the first general app for burning/reading NFC tags. At least at my Samsung Galaxy S3, this app is necessary for being able to run NFC commands on the device. So you need to install it anyway. Additionally it gives you the ability to burn commands to NFC tags, with a deep variety of different commands.

This is the opening screen. It keeps the most used presets or templates of commands. You can use those for burning your first tags, or to edit and modify, creating your own variation. Looking at them is also very effective to learn how to plan your tags.

Pressing the "+" button will lead us to create a new tag definition. Choose NFC and continue.

Now you will add the actions to be launched by your NFC tag.

Actions are separated in categories. I will not enter each one of them, let's only say that the division is very logic and you have enough actions to play for a long time with this subject.

In the above picture, I have chosen "Applications and Shortcuts", and then "Launch Activity". This should be used after launching an application. In the activity we can say what we want the application to do. In this case we chose the application 2X client, and the activity ActFarmsList.

After we finish defining all the actions, we will see a list in the lower part of the screen above. For us to control what is the size of the tag that we need, the software also provides to us the sizes of the different actions in the tag. We can then press Save & Write.

At this point the software will tell us to place the tag behind the phone. Before doing that you can also choose if you want to make the tag Read-Only. After you make it read-only, the tag will be write-protected, and neither you or anybody else will be able to rewrite it. Press Done to finish.

TAGWRITER

This is the second app for general NFC tag burning. It can also do some other interesting things, like copying the data from one NFC tag to another, convert a QR barcode to an NFC tag, and much more.

Above is the main screen of TagWriter. As I said, it has some options that don't exist in the previous software, but in the other hand it lacks some other things that can be found there.

Again, the actions for the phone are divided in different categories.

This is the screen for the "Launch Application" action. For each type of action you will have a different screen with the necessary parameters. Again, they are very straightminded, and we could spend the whole day going through each screen, but I will leave this to your curiosity.

TIMESHEET NFC ADD-ON

This is a third kind of application, a specific functionality to improve the execution of one specific software.

Timesheet is a well-considered Android app for keeping record of working time on different projects/customers. It has a very simple paradigm, a stopwatch for each project which you trigger on/off by pressing a start or stop button.

The developers thought of the same scenario I did, the case in which I have folders for each project/customer, which I open when begining to work on them, and close at the end of the work. In this case, you could easily activate/deactivate the stopwatch by passing your phone through an NFC label stuck on the first page (or the cover) of each folder. 

For this purpose, they created the Timesheet NFC Addon.

Above is the screen for begining to create a new tag for a specific project.

In the above screen we give a name to the tag and choose the project to be there.

At this point the software tells us to put a tag under your phone for it to sense it. At the moment it reads an empty or rewritable tag, it goes to the writing phase:

Here we choose by name the tag to be written and press the Write button. After a second we receive the confirmation that the tag has been written and is ready for use.

Conclusion

Well, you have read above a review of possible uses for NFC and of how to begin making use of your phone's NFC functionality with the help of NFC Tags. 

At this point, what is left for you to do is to find in which areas NFC can help making your life more comfortable, purchasing the tags, downloading the software, and beginning to have fun.

I hope you have enjoyed this review. See you on the next one.