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Tech Savvy: NFC 101

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A couple weeks ago I wrote an IMHO about QR (Quick Response) Codes and how I thought they were becoming outdated. I was thinking about it more and thought that rather than just outright dismissing them, I could expound a little on some of the things I see replacing them in the near future. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with QR Codes, they do a job and they do it well. They are also widely used now and that is important to remember. That being said, there are now more and much cooler options out there.

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QR Codes have become the vehicle that are now, arguably, synonymous with technologically advanced. For the most part this is true for one simple reason — QR Codes are easily accessible on any smartphone now. Despite the fact that QR Code, Datamatrix, Aztec, Beetag and numerous other 2D barcodes have been around for almost 20 years they are only now being used en masse here in the U.S. While they were originally developed for auto makers to help with inventory and tracking, retailers in Japan and Asia quickly adopted them for retail purposes as an efficient and gimmicky way of promoting products and driving traffic.

The driving force behind the slow adoption in the U.S. for QR Codes has largely been limited to the hardware that is found in our smartphones — camera quality and, notoriously, (for BB) auto-focus on the cameras as well. There is also a threshold of common use that must be crossed for the general public to become familiar enough with something that looks so outlandish before it is accepted. At this point all smartphones in the U.S. now have the capabilities to read and usually create QR Codes and this makes them extremely relevant right now.

But let’s get to the cool stuff. I really want to only focus on the one right now and, as we have time. We’ll walk through some of the other neat things coming up. Today I want to talk about Near Field Communication, or NFC as it is more commonly known. Near Field Communication is an advancement on RFID technology and is quickly becoming a standout feature with newer smartphones. Remember the Samsung ads that show the people sharing playlists, videos or contacts just by touching the backs of their phones together? That’s NFC. Remember seeing those “Touch your phone here for a free song” posters in the airports? That’s NFC. Remember when Apple buzzed about the Bump App and you just “fist-bumped” your phones to share that same kind of info? Sorry, that’s not NFC. Here’s the catch folks, and also the main reason it has not been accepted mainstream (yet). NFC is not capable on Apple devices. But wait! Any Apple fans reading this please read on! Apple continually hypes that it’s coming — someday — and maybe it’s just time to consider a better option and look at a high end Android phone.

OK, so what’s the difference between the NFC Android has and the pseudo-NFC that Bump uses? It’s just a different technology — NFC is actually an entire chipset and component that stands alone and is incorporated into the hardware that your phone uses. Bump uses existing tech to communicate with the phones. In the end they can really accomplish a lot of the same things but there are some differences that set NFC apart. How it works, in a nutshell, is that when you have an NFC capable phone, you can turn the tech on and off. You then can touch your phone to an NFC chip, or tag, and once it gets close enough it will transmit the data. It’s called Near Field because you have to be within centimeters of the tag for it to work this makes it effective at preventing you from downloading tons of stuff you don’t want.

NFC is a passive technology — at least from the embedded chip part. If you ran a Bluetooth broadcasting station (which is really cool, by the way) you would also need to power that station continually so it would keep working. NFC, on the other hand, doesn’t need power to keep it working — the tags require no power, just your phone, so you can leave an NFC tag out for weeks and they will still work, with no extra taxing on power.

Another huge benefit over QR codes is the accuracy. QR Codes are still essentially barcodes and if they are distorted or blurred they won’t work. True, there is up to a 30 percent degradation before they become completely unreadable but NFC is pretty close to fail proof in that aspect. If the tag is set up, it will transmit that same data no matter what and the tag doesn’t degrade from blurring, or being too small. This means that NFC has a little better longevity, can be used in mediums that QR Codes can’t for much less cost and let’s be honest, it just looks cool to touch your phone to stuff and say you got something cool.

One other cool use for NFC that I’m hoping to try is that you can program a string of commands into a chip and when you touch that chip it will initiate that sequence. For example: I can put a chip at home next to my couch, program it to turn my wi-fi in my phone on and turn my data off. When I touch my phone to the tag it will do exactly that and will help me save data. I could also put one in my car that when I touch it, my Bluetooth will turn on to sync with my gateway, it will adjust my volume then start playing my music. All of this without me having to touch a button — I just touch my phone and we’re off to the races.

If you want to try this out for yourself you can get NFC tags online that are pretty inexpensive and many companies have starter kits that will allow you to experiment with different ways of using the tags. This could include weatherproof tags for outside, stickers, necklaces and bracelets or even magnets. One that I will be trying personally — it’s on order — is the system from Tagstand, (www.tagstand.com). They have an app and if you download the app and tweet about it via their link, they will send you some free tags to get started. I’ve already ordered mine and as soon as I get them expect an update!

Next weekend I will be at the Marketplace Show at the Brainerd Civic Center, on the stage at 12:15 p.m., and then in the DE Media booth afterwards for a couple hours. I will be looking at some of the cool stuff I’ve been talking about, and will also be available if you have some tech questions or just want to chat about some of the cool stuff there is out there! Come join me, I’d love to see you there!

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Phil Seibel
I've been in the Brainerd Lakes Area for the last 6 years, currently in Baxter with my wife and two little girls. We really enjoy all the activities and places to see in the Lakes area and particularly enjoy going to the beach and walking out at the Arboretum. I grew up in western MN and went to school at the University of MN, Crookston.
(218) 855-5862
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