It is believed that the technology behind NFC was first discovered by English scientist Michael Faraday, in 1831. However, it’s disputed that it was in fact Francesco Zantedeschi who discovered it in 1829. The discovery was electromagnetic induction, a method of sending energy over a radio wave – something similar to what we see today in wireless charging on devices such as the Nokia Lumia 920, and the DT-601.
However, NFC (Near Field Communication) is used to send or receive data (as well as energy) over a short distance at a frequency of 13.56 MHz with rates ranging from 106 kbit/s to 424 kbit/s.
Based on RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), NFC is a relatively secure way of passing data from one device to another; all you need to initiate a transfer is to touch one NFC-enabled device to another. The security lies in the fact that to the two objects need to be extremely close in order for it to work.
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Getting closer with NFC
“NFC is designed to work for distances up to 10cm. However, it depends on the antenna size of the phone and tag, as well as the available power,” explains Andreas Jakl, CTO and founder of Mopius, a company that specializes in NFC apps, such as NFC interactor – an app to read and write NFC tags.
“In real terms and with phones, this means up to about 1cm. So, it’s just easier to physically tap the devices together,” Andreas says.
The diagram below shows the basics of data transmission with NFC.
Image from Rohde & Schwarz‘s NFC white paper.
Making an NFC connection
Between the two NFC devices, an electromagnetic field is generated where the data can be exchanged in one, or both directions, depending on the type of devices used.
For instance, if you’re travelling on the London Underground, you’ll be familiar with the Oyster card system. You touch your Oyster card against the terminal and the gates open to let you through. This is a one-way data transfer, where you receive nothing back. It’s what’s known as an active-passive connection.
The active element is the terminal and the passive one is your Oyster card.
As a rule of thumb, if the NFC-enabled device isn’t powered, then it’s passive (such as your contactless credit card, Oyster card, and wireless door key, etc.). These can remain dormant for years before being activated by an active NFC device.
If the device is powered, then that’s the active connection.
There’s also another type of connection, and that’s called active-active, or peer-peer mode. This is when both devices have a power source and are capable of more complex tasks such as running programs and exchanging information.
In any situation where you’ll be using your phone’s NFC capabilities, your phone is an active party. Interact with another NFC-enabled phone, and you’ve got yourself an active-active connection, both capable of sending and receiving data such as photos or contact details from either party. Although, for the most part, the actual data transfer on mobile phones takes place over Bluetooth, the NFC function oversees the pairing and security protocols.
NFC out in the wild
Currently, NFC is used for different purposes and will be more publicly visible and accessible in some countries than others. Andreas tells us: “In Austria, for example, over the past couple of months all the major supermarket chains nationwide have new NFC-capable payment terminals.”
While it’s possible to make payments via NFC, it’s mostly reserved for credit cards and other bank cards, as there’s an additional layer of security for the user. The expectation is that the same secure element will make it to mobile phones, too.
With the infrastructure growing in many parts of the world, the likelihood of more and more people using, or at least being aware of NFC will naturally increase. It’s evident that companies see a value in NFC, as they’re starting to invest in this technology.
In United Kingdom, Clear Channel has installed 10,000 NFC tags at various locations nationwide. Some of those locations include bus stops and are conveniently placed so that people can see them and are encouraged to interact with them, where commuters can be shown advertisements, deals, and bus timetables, as well as free news, sport and entertainment.
Put the power of NFC to work for you
NFC can be used to simplify the pairing process of Bluetooth devices, such as the JBL PowerUp Wireless Charging Speaker or the Nokia Purity Pro Wireless Stereo Headset Tap your NFC-enabled phone to the device, and it’s paired, connected and ready to rock.
Where NFC technology becomes important and useful is in its ability to become integrated into your smartphone, doing absolutely nothing until you need it. It requires so little power to make it run that it has next to no effect on your phone’s power consumption.
Do you use NFC? How do, or would you use it? Let us know in the comments section below.