NFC is a technology that most current smartphones have. It lets you transfer small amounts of data between two devices by simply tapping them together. You’ve no doubt heard of NFC when it comes to things like tap-to-pay solutions such as Google Pay, Samsung Pay, or Apple Pay.
Recently, Apple announced Apple Car Keys — an NFC solution that allows you to unlock your car with your phone instead of a key. However, those two examples seem to be the biggest, coolest things we’ve ever seen NFC being used for. Is there more coming or are there more examples hiding in consumer tech? Let’s explore the fun stuff we could use NFC for.
Learn more about NFC here:
- What is NFC and how does it work?
- All you need to know about NFC Tags
What can NFC do now?
Believe it or not, the list is rather short. NFC, by its very nature, is a simple connection with low speeds. It’s bad for things like large files, but you can still use it for small stuff like images. Additionally, it requires very close proximity, unlike Bluetooth. The result is a communication platform where transfer needs to be mostly instantaneous or you might as well use something else. Here is a shortlist of things you can actually use NFC for right now.
- By far the most popular use for NFC is tap-to-pay technology like Google Pay, Apple Pay, or Samsung Pay. Simply tap the terminal with your phone (usually with the app open) to pay for goods without the use of a debit card. This has also extended to things like boarding passes in some regions where you can import your boarding pass to Google Pay like you can a loyalty card.
- NFC tags and stickers let you program bits of information such as contact info or actions such as turning your smart lights on and off. They are available for purchase online and require a bit of setup with an app like this one. Stores and businesses often use NFC tags for marketing purposes or to deliver product information to consumers quickly.
- Many Bluetooth speakers and headphones come with NFC. You simply tap your phone to pair it to the Bluetooth speaker and off you go.
- Some appliances come with NFC for various quick actions. For instance, LG washers and dryers come with the technology. You can use it to download preset cycles so you can dial it in faster next time.
- There are some gaming applications. For instance, the New Nintendo 3DS has NFC as does Nintendo’s Amiibo platform. Additionally, many games use real-life toys and NFC to cause in-game events to happen. An early notable example is Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure from 2011.
- A growing trend is NFC tech in gyms. It lets you download your workout details from the machines you use, but that’s still relatively new.
- The medical field is currently embracing NFC with a bunch of uses like DNA tags, an NFC-enabled body temperature measurement patch, and all sorts of other stuff you can read about here.
It’s quite the list, but it goes a bit deeper than that. For instance, you can find NFC keychains, rings, animal collars, NFC implanted into your body, and even things like flexible tags or buttons to sew onto (or into) clothing. They are all just creative uses and placements of basic NFC tags, but it’s fun to see that stuff make its way into various products.
Still, the list isn’t as long as it seems. Basically, outside of tap-to-pay, the rest of it is just the same old NFC tag functionality baked into a different product for a different purpose. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does essentially bring the list down to two things. You can tap-to-pay or you can tap an NFC tag to get information or perform a quick action. That’s about it.
What’s coming through the pipelines for NFC?
We said earlier that NFC is a fairly simple technology. The simplicity makes it easy to use but limits its potential. Still, there are some developments that may make it more relevant than it’s ever been before.
Wireless charging over NFC
Perhaps one of the biggest developments is charging wirelessly over NFC. The NFC Forum announced the capabilities back in May of 2020. We don’t know when or if it’ll ever make it to smartphones. However, it’ll likely go to things like smartwatches, IoT tech, and other gadgets with smaller batteries.
It isn’t very fast right now (roughly 1W) which makes it a poor solution for phones with increasingly large batteries. Still, not needing to include standard wireless charging tech opens up space inside of gadgets to include other stuff, like larger batteries or other new tech.
NFC router pairing
When writing this piece, I honestly thought this was a thing already. The world’s first one-touch NFC router launched in November 2019 by Huawei. NFC is a pretty decent use case with Wi-Fi routers. Many include a WPS button to connect with a single touch, but NFC is faster and easier, especially for guests.
Linksys has similar technology with a SimpleTap card, but that requires you to keep track of an extra accessory so it’s not really the same thing. Widespread adoption of this technology by Wi-Fi routers would make pairing them significantly easier and erase an obnoxious, if minor, pain point in home networking.
Vehicle support is another example where things are already in motion. BMW is adding the technology to vehicles as we speak. So are others such as Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Volkswagen, and Cadillac. Apple has Apple Car Key to take advantage of NFC tech and we imagine Android will in the future as well. Tesla owners can already use NFC in their vehicles with the official app.
NFC is an obvious choice here. Digital key management systems can be complicated and current Bluetooth solutions are frequently inconsistent. NFC lets you simply tap your car door with your phone and you can get right in. The NFC Forum speculates that an NFC-powered digital key system may also help companies like Turo, which runs an Airbnb-style car borrowing service.
We’d actually like to see this in Android phones, except Google saw very little use when Smart Lock existed. It was subsequently removed so we don’t think people would actually use it for smartphones.
The eID movement
Some countries allow for electronic identification cards (eID cards) to be stored on devices. In fact, Germany already has a system in place. Samsung began supporting the technology with the Samsung Galaxy S20 series of devices. Android 11 also supports driver’s licenses with its IdentityCredential API, with more support coming. Eventually, we’ll be able to show ID cards to stores and the police with ease. The groundwork is already happening.
What else could we use NFC for?
Generally, it’s difficult to imagine a future roadmap when NFC can be so versatile yet so limited. Something like government IDs and driver’s licenses makes sense because tap-to-pay already exists. On the other hand, who could’ve predicted that NFC wireless charging would become a thing? The tech’s big thing is tapping to quickly exchange a small amount of information. It’s honestly surprising how much small information we can exchange.
So, we return to the headline. Betteridge’s law of headlines would seem to indicate that the answer could be no. However, it feels like NFC is actually chugging along at a pretty decent clip. Tap-to-pay is evolving into tap-to-identify, while bigger and more powerful machines are getting the technology every year. With the addition of wireless charging (mostly for smaller devices), it shows the technology’s ability to evolve and adapt.
At this point, it’s just a matter of time before companies find more uses for the technology. Of course, with the rise of UWB in devices like the iPhone 11 and 12 along with the Note 20 Ultra, NFC may even see some competition in the future.
What do you think it could be used for in the future? Share your cool NFC ideas in the comments.
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