Near Field Communication (NFC)

Near Field Communication (NFC) is a form of contactless communication between devices like smartphones or tablets. Contactless communication allows a user to wave the smartphone over a NFC compatible device to send information without needing to touch the devices together or go through multiple steps setting up a connection. This is very fast and convenient. NFC technology is popular in parts of Europe and Asia, and is quickly spreading throughout the United States. It is very useful to people who are buying things at a grocery store, businesses looking for faster and secure payments methods for customers, friends touring some unknown place, etc. So what exactly is the technology behind NFC? Is it any different from bluetooth?  

What is the technology behind NFC?

NFC technology lets smartphones and other enabled devices communicate with other devices containing a NFC tag. The technology behind NFC allows a device, known as a reader (also known as interrogator or active device), to create a radio frequency current that communicates with another NFC compatible device. A reader can also communicate with a small NFC tag holding the information the reader wants. NFC tags are passive devices, which means that they store information and communicate with the reader but cannot actively read other devices. Peer-to-peer communication through two active devices is also a possibility with NFC. This allows both devices to send and receive information.

NFC maintains interoperability between different wireless communication methods like Bluetooth and other NFC standards through the NFC Forum. It was founded in 2004 by Sony, Nokia, and Philips. The forum enforces strict standards that manufacturers must meet when designing NFC compatible devices. This ensures that NFC is secure and remains easy-to-use with different versions of the technology.

Modes of operation

NFC can operate in three modes:

  • Reader/writer mode: A reader/writer can collect and write information on a smart tag. The tag is essentially an integrated circuit containing data, connected to an antenna.
  • Peer-to-peer mode: Two NFC devices can exchange data between each other.
  • Card emulation mode: An NFC device appears to a reader like a contactless payment card or contactless transportation card.

What can NFC be used for?

NFC can be useful in various real life situations as given in the list below:

  • Transportation: NFC works with most contactless smart cards and readers, meaning it can easily be integrated into the public transit payment systems in cities that already use a smart card swipe.
  • Sharing multimedia with friends: Unlike Bluetooth, NFC-enabled devices don’t have to be set up to work with each other. They can be connected with a tap. If NFC-enabled phones become prevalent, you’ll be able to initiate a two-player game by simply touching two phones together. You’ll be able to link a headset to your phone or print a photo just by touching your device to a printer.
  • Smart Objects: NFC can have similar applications as bar codes do now. You can put one on a poster and let pedestrians scan it on their phones for more information.
  • Social Media: Users can swipe their phones past in order to alert their friends that they were “checked in” at that location.

How is it different from Bluetooth?

NFC and Bluetooth are both short-range communication technologies that are integrated into mobile phones. NFC operates at slower speeds than Bluetooth, but consumes far less power and doesn’t require pairing. The maximum data transfer rate of NFC is 424 kbit/s where as that of Bluetooth V2.1 is 2.1 Mbit/s. If you have noticed it, you cannot keep Bluetooth switched on for long because it is a very power hungry technology. It will quickly drain your batteries! NFC sets up faster than standard Bluetooth. With NFC, instead of performing manual configurations to identify devices, the connection between two NFC devices is automatically established quickly, in less than a tenth of a second.

With a maximum working distance of less than 20 cm, NFC has a shorter range, which reduces the likelihood of unwanted interception. That makes NFC particularly suitable for crowded areas where correlating a signal with its transmitting physical device becomes difficult. NFC can work with an unpowered device, like a phone that may be turned off, a contactless smart credit card, a smart poster, etc.

Are big companies adopting this technology?

Quite a few companies have taken keen interest in developing and commercializing this technology. Google has launched Google Wallet that supports MasterCard PayPass. PayPal offers money transfers between smartphones. As the technology grows, more NFC compatible smartphones will be available and more stores will offer NFC card readers for customer convenience. In fact, companies like Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, PayPal, Credit card companies and Mobile phone providers have been working pretty extensively on this technology. Pretty good right!

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