How Things Work

Credit: Justin Lin/Staff Credit: Justin Lin/Staff

Imagine that after getting ready for another workday, your phone, in your pocket, senses your departure and locks all of the entrances to your house for you. Simultaneously, your phone unlocks the driver’s-side door of your car. Before heading to work, you decide to stop by a Starbucks first, and at the register, you pay for your coffee by briefly waving your phone in front of the cash register. When you finally make it to your job, your boss receives a notification on his or her phone that you just entered the building. Sounds like fantasy? In fact, all of the above is primed to become reality very soon. In fact, to some extent, it already is, thanks to a new technology called near-field communication (NFC).

Actually, NFC isn’t entirely new. It’s based on radio frequency technologies that have been around since the 1980s, though the recent actions companies like Google are taking to promote NFC are making it a hot-trending topic in the world of technology. In fact, you may already have heard the term thrown around before as a contact-less payment solution, which the wireless protocol allows for. However, as described above, NFC technology has the potential to change almost every aspect of people’s lives.

At its core, NFC is essentially another wireless technology that allows two devices to securely communicate with each other over short distances. The difference between NFC and more familiar wireless transfer protocols like Bluetooth is that NFC requires no pairing or passkeys of any kind, is extremely reliable, and allows for connections between devices to be made much faster — in less than a tenth of a second, to be precise.

To achieve these feats, NFC employs an electrical engineering concept called inductive coupling, in which a conductive material passes through an electric field, creating an electric current. So when an NFC-capable phone, for example, comes close enough to a magnetic field-emitting NFC device, the resulting current signals that a connection should be made between the two objects. Data carried by wireless radio waves is then passed to-and-fro within the magnetic field.

Perhaps the most important feature of NFC lies in its “tags.” NFC tags are essentially small stickers with NFC microchips embedded within them. They can store up to 512 bytes of data, can be placed just about anywhere (on posters or items in a store), cost cents on the dollar to manufacture, and — because of the passive nature of inductive coupling — they require no power whatsoever. Perhaps their biggest advantage is that, unlike bar codes, QR codes, or other wireless tag technologies (like RFIDs) that can only send information, NFC tags are rewritable. Not too fond of that new cereal brand at Giant Eagle? Users can hover their phone over the cereal box and write an in-store review. Other shoppers will then be able to scan the cereal box and immediately be given a list of the most recent reviews for that item.

“NFC truly enables the long-predicted ‘internet of things,’ changing how we interact with the world in subtle but pervasive ways,” said Adam Blum, an adjunct professor at the Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley campus.

NFC may be very prevalent in our future lives. Google already employs the technology in its flagship Nexus S Android smartphone, which comes with a “Google Wallet” app that allows users to pay with their phones in stores where NFC is supported. IHS iSuppli, an electronics market research agency, estimates that almost 200 million NFC-equipped cell phones will be shipped over the next two years, and that by 2015, over 30 percent of all cell phones shipped will be NFC-enabled. Both Visa and MasterCard are pushing for future NFC initiatives, so a phone can quite literally become a credit card... and then some.