It's already in the latest Android devices, it's going to be in the next generation of Windows gadgets, it's rumoured to be part of the next generation of iPhones, and it's appearing in many other mobile devices.
"Near field communication" (NFC) is a solution to the common problem of electronic devices that are so near and yet so far - right beside each other yet unable to communicate directly.
NFC works by using radio to communicate digital information over distances of a few centimetres. It's based on the technology behind radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, the kind of electronic markers that have become common in things like merchandise tags and swipe-free ID cards.
The beauty of RFID tags is that they are passive, requiring no power source of their own. Instead, they derive the small amount of electrical power they need from the radio waves emitted by a tag reader. In a way, the reader is like a radio version of a torch, lighting up tags that it comes near and revealing the information they contain. But there is nothing to stop self-powered devices using the same frequencies and protocols to send and receive all kinds of digital information.
Interaction with passive tags is one motivation for including NFC in consumer electronics. Just as a camera-equipped phone can pick up information from a bar code, an NFC-equipped phone can pick up information from suitably placed tags - without the hassle of pointing and clicking.
Also useful is the ability of an NFC-equipped device to appear like a tag to a conventional reader, but a tag that can change its personality according to the situation. But even more exciting are the possibilities for interaction between two NFC-equipped mobile devices.
Together, these three techniques open up a range of possible applications, from sharing bits and pieces of information between friends to making payments - a service already available to Wellington commuters, for instance.
There are similarities between NFC and wireless technologies that have come before, like infrared and Bluetooth. Bluetooth in particular never reached its full potential, a fate NFC may be able to avoid by turning an apparent shortcoming into an advantage.
Although near field communication is very near indeed - you have to get the two devices right next to each other - this is actually a good thing, because it gives you a measure of control over who and what your device is communicating with.
This in turn makes it easy for your phone or tablet to work out your intention, based on what other NFC devices are within range, which should make NFC interactions very fluid and convenient.
The physical NFC link is just the beginning. It's software that makes NFC useful, and once it is more widespread, we are sure to see many novel and interesting applications appear.
The internet has made it easy for our devices to communicate over vast distances and has opened up many new avenues of innovation as a result. Now NFC promises to do the same thing for communication over very short distances.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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