NFC: Not just for mobile payments anymore

More companies embraced the close-range connectivity technology at the Consumer Electronics Show. How they're using NFC may surprise you.

LG demos NFC technology in appliances at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Sarah Tew/CNET

Move over, mobile payments. NFC is finding other ways to make itself useful.

In fact, paying for items with one's phone seems to be the least common use for the close-range connectivity technology right now, at least based on gadgets unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show. Rather, essentially all products using NFC shown at the recent confab employed the technology in one of two ways: To set up a sort of digital handshake between a mobile device and another gadget or as a way to share information between products with just a tap.

"NFC really simplifies things," Scott McGregor, CEO of connectivity chipmaker Broadcom, told CNET at CES. "The most advanced technology is stifled if it's not easy to use. ... NFC plays a very valuable role in simplifying user interfaces for consumer products."

NFC is short for near-field communication, a chip technology that allows devices to transfer small amounts of data between each other. Both devices must contain NFC chips and must be closer than an inch to connect. Typically, NFC works by tapping the two devices together to securely exchange data such as credit card information, train tickets, coupons, press releases, and more.

NFC has long been hailed as the technology to bring mobile payments, or the idea of waving your phone in front of a cash register to purchase a good, closer to reality. However, the mobile payments trend has been slow to take off, and it continues to face many hurdles for adoption. While the technological issues have largely been resolved, there just aren't that many stores and point-of-sales terminals equipped with NFC for widespread use.

But at CES, NFC popped up in nearly everything imaginable (just not at cash registers). Along with the usual devices, like smartphones, there were speakers, cameras, televisions, refrigerators, business cards, and numerous other items. Some companies, such as Panasonic, have even added NFC to rice cookers and other usual items.

Sony introduced speakers with NFC technology at CES. Sarah Tew/CNET

NFC is already becoming a familiar spec in smartphones. Aside from mobile payments, many handset vendors have been using NFC technology as a way to differentiate their products from rivals, particularly the iPhone. Apple is the most notable NFC holdout, though it's widely expected to incorporate the technology into future devices.

Samsung, meanwhile, has been one of the biggest companies pushing the technology. It has released several ads that show what users can do with NFC ( like sharing videos by tapping two Galaxy S3 phones together ), and it also has slammed the iPhone 5 for its lack of sharing capabilities . At CES, the company unveiled speakers that use NFC to pair a phone to the device. Content is then streamed via Bluetooth.

And Sony included NFC in nearly all of its products shown at CES, including TVs, smartphones, remotes, and speakers. The company, which dubbed the technology "One Touch," said during its press conference that it offers more NFC-enabled products than any other electronics maker in the world. Sony noted the technology would ease media transfer and streaming among phones, tablets, TVs, and audio devices by establishing a link between them just by touching the devices to one another.

"Customers are asking for easy, seamless ways to be able to access and transfer their personal content," Brian Siegel, Sony vice president of marketing, told CNET at CES. "We've been talking about it collectively for a long time, and it's been this combo of wireless and wired solutions. NFC and Sony's One Touch, we believe, is the easiest solution ever brought to market."

Panasonic unveiled a couple cameras with the technology, and LG also incorporated NFC into its electronics, as well as its appliances such as washing machines, vacuums, and refrigerators. In the case of appliances, people will be able to pair their smartphones with the product and then control it remotely, like turning on the washing machine while still in the office.

NFC has many benefits over other connectivity technology. Most important, it allows users to bypass all the steps required to set up something like Bluetooth. Just think about how long pairing a phone to a Bluetooth speaker takes. You have to discover the device, enter passwords, etc. For less tech savvy users, simply getting two devices to talk to each other can be daunting. With NFC, it's one tap and the items are paired.

It can even be used to get information from a poster or other non-electronic device by installing passive NFC tags in the item. Unlike NFC readers, which are used in smartphones and other electronic devices, the passive tags don't need batteries, and they're very cheap, costing only pennies. An NFC-enabled smartphone is able to decipher the information on the tag by sending energy to it to power it up and receive the data.

Caesars Entertainment, owner of eight hotels and casinos in Las Vegas, is making use of such technology. It installed more than 4,500 interactive Samsung TecTiles in its resorts, allowing anyone with an NFC-enabled device to tap the various TecTiles for information such as game tutorials, show times, restaurant menus, and ticket purchases.

"People are talking about putting them in virtually every consumer device," Henry Samueli, Broadcom co-founder and board chairman, told CNET at CES. "You could walk through your grocery store, and something you buy for a couple dollars could have a tag. That would be useful for stores for inventory control and things like that, and for the consumer, it's a fast way of exchanging information."

The Panasonic Lumix TS5 features NFC capabilities. Panasonic
By getting NFC into more devices, companies are easing consumers into the idea of using the technology, which should help when (if) mobile payments take off. Because NFC is a secure technology, it's still seen as an ideal way to handle mobile transactions.

"NFC was very present at CES, but it had nothing to do with payments," Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi said. "It's smart because you're getting consumers familiar with the technology so when mobile payments is ready and the ecosystem ready, they'll feel comfortable with it."

Of course, NFC isn't perfect. Because the technology requires two devices to be very close to each other, it won't be replacing Bluetooth or Wi-Fi anytime soon. Those longer-range connectivity technologies will still be required for streaming content. Also, in the early days of NFC, it was hard to figure out where to tap to make the connection.

In addition, while NFC technology itself is a standard, not all NFC products work together. That's because companies incorporate their own software into the systems, limiting what devices the products work with. That helps create brand loyalty (if you have a Samsung phone and want to stream content to your TV, it's easier to also own a Samsung television), but it also limits what consumers are actually able to do with their products.

Market watchers say that should change as industry groups and companies agree on a standard. And in time, NFC might actually show up in the majority of consumer electronics.

"Right now you see Samsung commercials where you tap a Galaxy S3 with another and you're exchanging videos." Gartner analyst Mark Hung said. "That's great, but try doing that with a Nokia phone. All these other companies also have NFC, but interoperability leaves much to be desired. I expect that to be sorted out this year."

Samsung handed out wristbands with NFC technology at its CES press conference. James Martin/CNET
Here are some products that use NFC (Note: not all of these were announced at CES):

  • Virtual press kits and business cards -- Various execs and companies used NFC as a fast way to share their contact information and press releases. All people meeting them had to do was tap their NFC-enabled phone (sorry, iPhone users) to the item, typically a wristband or business card, to access the information. Samsung, for example, handed NFC-enabled wristbands to all attendees at its press conference, and Sharp gave out business cards embedded with its press release.
  • Information points such as posters -- Caesars Entertainment, owner of eight hotels and casinos in Las Vegas, installed more than 4,500 interactive Samsung TecTiles in its resorts. Anyone with an NFC-enabled device will be able to tap the various TecTiles for information such as game tutorials, show times, restaurant menus, and ticket purchases.
  • Speakers -- NFC is typically used in these devices to pair a smartphone to a speaker. The music is not actually streamed to the system via NFC but is shared through Bluetooth. Samsung and Sony were two notable companies with NFC speakers.
  • Headphones -- The function is much like wireless speakers. Users tap their phone to the headphones to allow pairing for the transfer of music. Sony also makes these .
  • Boomboxes and other music players -- Sony , again.
  • Cameras -- At least two cameras introduced at CES included NFC capabilities: The Panasonic Lumix ZS30 and the Panasonic Lumix TS5. Along with built-in Wi-Fi, the cameras should enable "the widest range of remote shooting options, remote viewing, and instant sharing on social networks."
  • TVs -- LG and Sony were a couple big companies showing off NFC-enabled TVs at CES. Like with audio devices, NFC is used to pair a phone to the TV by tapping the two together.
  • Remote controls -- In this instance, users tap their phones to their remote instead of their TV to pair the device to the television. Sony is one company doing this.
  • Appliances -- LG showcased a slew of washers, dryers, ovens, refrigerators, and vacuums with NFC technology. After pairing the appliance with a phone, users can program their products from afar, such as turning on a washing machine while still in the office.
  • Other weird kitchen items -- Panasonic's Asian operations have made an NFC-enabled rice cooker and a steam microwave oven. Users can search for recipes and program cooking instructions using their smartphones.
  • Computers -- HP's SpectreOne all-in-one desktop PC, announced in September, incorporates NFC technology, which it calls HP TouchZone. Via a sensor built into the base of the unit, users can log into the SpectreOne or transfer files to it by simply swiping a smartphone or another device equipped with NFC. HP's Envy 14 Spectre ultrabook also includes NFC, as does Sony's Vaio Tap 20 mobile desktop PC.
  • Smart meters for utility companies -- Landis+Gyr in late 2011 said it was working with NXP Semiconductor on energy management products with integrated NFC.
  • Digital bubble gum machine -- Digital advertising agency Razorfish last July developed a high-tech prototype version of the gum ball machine that allows users to download digital content like apps and movies to their NFC-enabled phone for a small fee.
  • Heart monitor -- Impak Health, a joint venture between Swedish chipmaker Cypak and U.S.-based Meridian Health, developed the RhythmTrak heart monitor. The product tracks certain heart-related data, which can then be downloaded or sent to a clinician by placing it next to an NFC-enabled phone.
  • Wii U -- It's not really clear how NFC will be used in this Nintendo console, but it may allow users to do things like add new characters to games.
  • Cars -- An NFC-enabled smartphone will be able to unlock Hyundai cars by 2015.

 

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