NFC: The Future is Connected Objects

RFID tags have been embedded on products, inventory, and shipments thanks to the requirements of Walmart and the US military. Finally, mobile devices are becoming affordable readers of RFID tags thanks to NFC – near field communication. Google has experimented with it; Apple and other smartphone makers are integrating it in upcoming devices; and more potential uses are being found for it.

But what is it?

NFC enables the wireless transfer of data over short distances between two devices – think of the Bump app, only a little bit different (RFID instead of Bluetooth). In the words of the NFC Forum, “loosely coupled inductive circuits share power and data over a distance of a few centimeters.” (via Mashable).

You can receive or write data (tags), you can exchange data, or you can use the technology to emulate a card – say your MTA pass or Oyster card, or yes, your credit and debit cards.

This makes it extremely attractive to banks and merchants as a way of conducting small, in-person transactions for a very simple reason: the near-field requirement makes the transfer of data much more secure, and can therefore turn your smartphone into your wallet.

But mobile payments are not the only use of NFC technology and will be the subject of a separate post. For example, a company called Objec has developed a product line they describe as “Technology Enhanced Memorial Projects” and have dubbed it RosettaStone. They’re tagging gravestones with RFID chips and embedding additional content, an image, and a location ID to make it easier to find the memorial on a map. Setting aside the unfortunate graveyard metaphor, the possibilities for brands are exciting.

With this technology, conceivably, outdoor boards, posters, in-store signage, or transport platforms could be NFC tagged with all kinds of information: train schedules, store-finders for products featured in advertising, additional content related to the advertisement. There’s an obvious interest for marketers in the P2P swap of data – what an easy way to do lead generation! Tap your phone and we’ll give you something in exchange for your phone number or email address. Or better – imagine a shopping experience where you ‘scan’ items with your phone, add them to a virtual shopping cart, and check out on the mobile web without ever seeing a checkstand?

Perhaps even more exciting, in the read/write mode, is the possibility for people to share information back to the brand – tell a story about the location, review a restaurant, recommend an item. In fact, before Foursquare came along, some were working on NFC technology as a check-in method – integrating the additional features Foursquare has added could be a way to make this check-in seamless and attractive to people who are checking in less often.

Sarah Kessler wrote a great piece on Mashable on the ways that NFC could influence our daily lives. Everything from credit card payments to transit card swipes to social network check-ins to medical alert bracelets could be utterly transformed by the technology.

And in the area of social objects, there is enormous potential for new applications.

For example, Touchanote transforms objects like your couch or your desk into conduits to your Evernote content. Here’s how they explain it:

Meanwhile, The London History Museum have partnered with Nokia to install NFC tags to enable visitors to tap to join the museum, get vouchers for museum store discounts, buy tickets to special events, learn more about the exhibits, like objects on Facebook, or tweet about what they see.

***

While touring MoMA’s Talk To Me exhibition on social objects, I was reminded that the notion of RFID tagged objects for the purposes of creative expression isn’t new. What used to be known as locative media art has been explored by cyberpunk writers like Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. In 2004 at a SIGGRAPH conference, Bruce Sperling imagined the future of connected, tagged, social objects and even gave them a name: “Spimes”. A year later, his book, Shaping Things came out, describing “thinglinks” as another term for connected objects. In 2007, William Gibson described pre-iPhone augmented reality/RFID-triggered art and introduced millions to the notion of locative art, in his novel Spook Country.

Artists, as these writers noticed, have been playing with tags for the better part of the last decade. One reasonably fun example is iTea: it uses a projector, a tea cup, and an RFID tag to display all that Google knows about you. It essentially gossips on your behalf… about you.

But there are serious challenges to the adoption of this technology by brands and advertisers. One is that the technology, not unlike QR codes and augmented reality, are ambiguous – you can use them for truly anything. As a result, it’s hard to imagine the best use, and easy to imagine lots of mundane ones. And with RFID tags, there are real concerns for individuals about personal privacy, data security, and, more generally, tracking. The art world struggles with this ambiguity as much as any marketer. But at least they have a history of experimenting with the technology and its implications.

So – want to play around with NFC and see what you can do with it? There are plenty of kits and services out on the market. The RFID Mon Amour kit sells for €359. Not a tinkerer? Just design to order from Finnish web-to-print house, Tagage. Upload your designs on their website, and they’ll create posters, cards, tickets, and other printed materials employing NFC or 2D codes. In fact, why choose? Print a QR Code on the poster, embed an RFID chip in the back… hey presto! You’ve made a connected object.

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