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Samsung TecTiles: NFC stickers do cool stuff with your phone

Samsung is getting behind NFC in a bigger way with stickers that interact with your phone. But it may take some coaxing to catch on.

Samsung TechTiles sticker on a business card
Sticking a TecTiles sticker on a business card lets others automatically add your details with a tap and a buzz. Josh Miller/CNET

Nick DiCarlo waved me over to a low table in a hotel meeting room, pointing me to rows of stickers affixed to card stock. Taking in my quizzical expression, Samsung's VP of product planning for mobile urged me to hold the Galaxy S III demo device in front of a sticker, one that happened to be attached to his business card. The phone buzzed, and a moment later, DiCarlo's contact information appeared on the screen, ready for me to save to my address book.

These TecTiles, as Samsung calls them, are no ordinary stickers. A tiny nub of an NFC chip is embedded within; you can feel it when you drag your fingernail across the surface. Like other NFC stickers, TecTiles rely on near-field communication technology to communicate a set of instructions: in this case, saving me a few minutes and dozens of keystrokes by automatically adding a new contact.

TecTiles, which can be programmed to trigger any number of tasks, are part of a Samsung initiative to bring attention to the underused NFC technology, which has mostly been synonymous with mobile payments. And it isn't catching on at a rate that those with with NFC-capable products would like.

With TecTiles, Samsung is attempting to answer the question, "Sure, my phone has NFC, whatever that is. But what can I do with it?"

Samsung TecTiles app
The Samsung TecTiles Android app lets you captain four types of controls. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Four-way control
The stickers, which Samsung will sell in packs of five at each of the Big Four carriers' retail locations ($14.99), correspond to a free Android app that is responsible for the actual programming. With them, you'll be able to set a TecTile to set your alarm, check into a social network, auto-compose a text to a particular recipient, turn the phone to driving mode, and so on.

In some cases, you can mix and match tasks within the same category, so that tapping the NFC-capable phone to the sticker you've affixed to your bedside lamp turns on night mode and the alarm, and tapping it again toggles them off. Likewise, a TecTile on your car dash may toggle car mode while also engaging Bluetooth for calls.

You can reprogram the stickers to your heart's content, and the free app will work with the Samsung Galaxy S III, Galaxy Nexus, Galaxy S II, Galaxy S Blaze 4G, and Nexus S.

You'll also be able to download and use the app and TecTiles on non-Samsung phones, so long as they're NFC-enabled, like the HTC One X.

With TecTiles, you'll also be able to display a message of your choice on someone else's screen, place a call, launch an app, open a URL, check into Facebook, automatically "like" something on Facebook, follow a Twitter contact, and connect on Linked In, among a few other tasks.

Two scenarios: For us, for them
Samsung envisions two groups of TecTiles users, individuals and families on one hand, and businesses on the other. The ice cream shop down the street could stick a TecTile on their register, so you wouldn't have to even open Foursquare to check in. Companies could host scavenger hunts and promotions based on TecTiles, or lead you to quickly get to their app or their shop address with a wave of the phone.

Once programmed, any phone with NFC should be able to read a TecTile. On the flipside, the programmer can lock a TecTile's content, so pranksters can't override a Foursquare check-in with something more insidious.

Samsung would love TecTiles to replace QR codes, but there are some practical limitations that extend beyond the price. Samsung's Nick DiCarlo may have had help perfectly affixing TecTiles stickers onto a couple dozen of business cards, but at this stage, the thought of such manual labor on my business card stack would be cost- and time-prohibitive.

The app itself appears to be a good first version, but until you can program at will within each of the four categories, and across the categories (turn on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, turn off location tracking,) its uses are more constricted. (Samsung says it would love to cross categories in a future version.)

A hard sell?
While Samsung certainly has more clout than other no-name purveyors of competing NFC stickers, it's hard to imagine Samsung's stickers becoming an overnight sensation (especially when they're far less cute than these.) At $3 apiece, most consumers won't buy the tags in bulk and start stickering their home, car, and office to experiment.

At the same time, users may have trouble coming up with multiple scenarios that would warrant an NFC shortcut. In one Samsung scenario, a child used a TecTile to text his mother when he came home every day after school, an action that reduced his daily chore from an onerous text to a pair of taps.

I personally find TecTiles intriguing, but at this stage I also classify them as a nonessential solution looking for a consumer problem.

Samsung hasn't announced any corporate partners yet, but it is hosting an event in New York on June 20, where it could show off how well TecTiles would tap into an independent consumer business or chain in the wild.