How does… near field communication work?

Each week, we ask some of the industry's most knowledgable boffins to break down jargon to help you through those confusing meetings and indecipherable conferences. Here, GPJ's Chris Hogben explains how near field communication is being used throughout adland and beyond.

If you’ve ever tapped onto a train with a reusable ticket such as an Opal or Myki card, or paid for something by touching your phone or card to a terminal, you’ve used NFC.

NFC stands for near field communication and can be described as a digital handshake between you and a device or system. NFC tags are passive, meaning they don’t require any power.

Instead, electromagnetic induction is used to create a current that allows the tag to be read by the tag reader. For this reason, you must place the tag within a very close proximity of the reader for it to work.

NFC tags store a very limited amount of information (less than an old floppy disk!); this can be a unique identifier, an email or web address, any sort of basic information that can be stored as text.

Where are they being used?

Besides getting you in and out of the train station’s gates or processing your payments at the supermarket, another place you’ll often encounter NFC tags can be events.

Delegates receive NFC-enabled name badges or wristbands that allow them to interact with content, as well as provide the organisers with useful data on delegate engagement. Instead of reporting on a traffic flow only (like beacons do) NFC can provide insights on very intentional interactions between a user and a device or system.

Although NFC tags don’t contain much data, they can be used for a vast range of activities like competition entries, personalising content or triggering requests for more information sent via email.

NFC tags can also be very useful for creating shortcuts on your phone. Encoded cards can switch your phone to silent, launch an application or connect a device to a WiFi network. At work, I use them to take the client directly into a mobile VR experience.

The alternative is putting the headset on yourself and navigating thought a series of menus, which doesn’t make for a great demo. I also use it to curate meetings. By having an NFC reader connected to a computer that runs the projector, we’re able to launch showreels, documents or presentations by simply tapping different pre-encoded cards to the reader.

NFC can also be used in advertising – it’s possible to have NFC encoded posters on the street that, when tapped, will give the user a discount code.

Unfortunately, the limited support on iOS devices makes it harder to roll out campaigns such as this to a wider audience. Apple has reserved the use of their NFC hardware for Apple Pay and in app experiences only, creating an entry barrier for a lot of users. iPhone owners will have to download an app first, before making use of a company’s NFC product.

Tap your phone to get $1 off your next coffee? Sure! Stop, download the app, then tap to get $1 off? I’ll pass.

What else is there that’s similar to NFC?

Some other technologies that provide a similar functionality (although not identical) include beacons, QR codes and geofencing. They each are mid-to-close range technologies that will perform an action when a device is detected, or a code is scanned.

All of those technologies complement each other very effectively, too. For example, beacons can have a much larger range than NFC, so you could use them to see how much foot traffic passed through an area, then gather the NFC data to discover how many people actually interacted with your product.

Does a NFC tag have to be card sized?

You may be most familiar with NFC tags that come in a business card size, however there any many different types of NFC tags available, from stickers and badges to tags woven into fabric, you can put an NFC tag in almost anything.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with some innovative applications for NFC tags.

Nike released an NBA jersey that had an NFC tag woven into it which would, when tapped against your phone, unlock special content, such as pre-game footage or player’s favourite music playlists.

Disney research has come up with a cool way to control digital interfaces without the need for electronic input devices – it’s all done through RFID tags (RFID can be thought of as the precursor to NFC).

Chris Hogben is a designer at George P. Johnson Australia.

If you’d like to contribute a topic to this feature, please email features editor Josie Tutty on josie@mumbrella.com.au.


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