Novel NFC Applications

Novel NFC Applications to Enrich Our Connections

The NFC Forum Innovation Awards

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One of the greatest judging experiences I have had the good fortune of being a part of was for the Near-Field Communication (NFC) Forum Innovation Award in its inaugural year [1]. (I was representing the IEEE Council on Radio-Frequency Identification.) The NFC Forum’s (www.nfc-forum.org) mission is to advance the use of NFC technology by developing specifications, ensuring interoperability among devices and services, and educating the market about NFC technology.

The forum’s global member companies are currently developing specifications for a modular NFC device architecture and protocols for interoperable data exchange and device-independent service delivery, device discovery, and device capability. Unsurprisingly, sponsors of the NFC Forum are tech giants like Apple, Broadcom Corporation, Dai Nippon Printing Co., Ltd., Google, Intel, MasterCard Worldwide, NXP Semiconductors, Qualcomm, Samsung, Sony Corporation, STMicroelectronics, and Visa. NFC is being viewed as a key piece of the Internet of Things puzzle. Versatile and easy to implement, estimates are that it will be a US$21.8 billion industry by 2020, on the conservative side [2], with exponential growth expected by 2050 into an industry worth trillions of dollars.

The forum had a large contingent of international entrants for a variety of categories, including “Most Innovative NFC Product, Service, or Implementation,” “Best Mobile App,” and “Best NFC Startup” (see “The NFC Forum Innovation Award Winners by Category”). There were nine judges in all, including Allied Business Intelligence Senior Analyst Phil Sealy, Groupe Speciale Mobile (GSM) Association Terminals Director Paul Gosden, and The Smart Card Alliance Executive Director Randy Vanderhoof, and we all went through several rounds of judging.

Top honors went to Speech Code’s “Talking Labels,” Khushi Baby’s “Mobile Medical App,” and Dimple’s “Customizable Mobile Button Stickers” at the NFC Forum awards ceremony in Las Vegas, Nevada, on 14 March 2017. Entries were judged on their innovation, commercial potential, and usability as well as on the quality of design and implementation. The beauty of this competition from a judge’s eyes was that every entrant was so different in aim and objectives, design, implementation, and final product. In most cases, NFC was being described as a part of a larger process, a single component of a system acting as the key enabler.

There were entrants touting NFC in novel agricultural applications, factory or manufacturing automation, or services driven with consumer information access as the primary goal. Submissions ranged across a broad set of industries from the connected home, smart health, smart consumer, and automotive to Internet of Things, gaming, connected retail, and transportation. In one case study, an entrant pointed to the tens of thousands of end users of its implementation in the transportation industry, demonstrating not only that take-up has been well established but that NFC has been around for longer than people might think. The value in such competitions is that they pull members of the economic knowledge infrastructure closer together toward collaborative opportunities and common standardization that should see an emerging technology with enough support mechanisms to reach its full potential in the market [3].

According to the chair of the NFC Forum, Koichi Tagawa, “In today’s increasingly connected world, NFC offers a tap-based experience that simplifies, enriches, and improves our daily lives. Since it is easy to implement, developers and product designers are turning to NFC to enable the Internet of Things and deliver compelling, personalized user experiences.” This does beg the question whether or not there are any limits to NFC development and deployment.

It is such a versatile technology and integratable to just about anything. I have, though, been the first to question its application in certain market segments, including the financial sector, given the lack of emphasis being applied by the credit card industry at large to security of current tap-and-go solutions plaguing some local merchants. Yet, it is a sign of the times, perhaps, when embeddable NFC in humans for Bitcoin transactions is a legitimate registered entrant in a competition such as this one. We should be ready to witness anything imaginable to the free mind to enter the market. End users seem to like the ease of conducting transactions with NFC, even if they do not fully understand the implications of doing so.

Most Innovative NFC Product, Service or Implementation

The first-place winner in the “Most Innovative NFC Product, Service, or Implementation” category was Speech Code GmbH (Austria) (Figure 1) for its NFC talking labels, which enable up to 30 min of recorded speech in over 40 languages from stickers adhered to signage, food and beverage packaging, and retail products. Using NFC tags to enable speech output, the talking labels make it easy for people with disabilities, retail shoppers, or tourists to use their NFC-enabled phones to get important product information, such as food allergy and nutrition facts, as well as identification information for the visually impaired. This Austria-based company has won a string of past awards and has a vibrant female chief executive officer, Barbara Operschall, who is passionate about the tourism sector.

Figure 1. Speech Code GmbH (Austria) submitted a device that uses NFC tags to enable speech output, making it easy for people with disabilities, retail shoppers, or tourists to use their NFC-enabled phones to get important product information. (Image courtesy of Speech Code and NFC Forum.)

Best Mobile App

The first-place winner in the “Best Mobile App” category was Khushi Baby, Inc. (United States) for its NFC wearable health mobile application, which uses NFC mobile technology to enable health workers in India to interface with infant medical data through an NFC-tag-enabled digital necklace (Figure 2). Unlike paper immunization records that are difficult to maintain and access, clinicians can use NFC-enabled mobile devices and the Khushi Baby, or happy baby, mobile app to read the infant’s wearable necklace, identify which vaccinations are needed, upload the vaccine data into the cloud, and monitor the infant in real time. Modeled after amulet necklaces frequently worn by babies in this region, the waterproof, battery-free, digital necklace is ideal for use in rural communities, using low-power wireless technology for its operation.

It is easy to see how this mobile app might well be implemented for MedicAlert-style bracelets of various types in different kinds of markets. But underlying care applications are always the dominant factor of control. Stringent guidelines must ensure that the data gathered by the wearable device are not used retrospectively in nonmedical contexts. There also need to be regulatory guidelines introduced on how long the device is worn by infants and how the gathered data will be archived and who has access to the information and for how long.

If the Aadhaar multimodal biometric system is anything to judge by, emerging technologies in India are often deployed before the commensurate consumer protections are The beauty of this competition from a judge’s eyes was that every entrant was so different in aim and objectives, design, implementation, and final product. Of course, Khushi Baby has the best interests of children at heart, their care and hope for a better life, supporting health workers in their aims, but it is amazing how scope creep can easily pervade emerging technologies. Placing chips in bracelets or just about any other common fashion item can be a temptation for product developers who see potential for even greater functional applications [4]. Still, I am inspired by how daring Indian innovators are in pushing next-generation cell phone applications out to the public. Having traveled through India several times in the last few years, I have seen the vibrant tech sector, which is definitely thinking outside the box. But I am admittedly cautious with any application of technology that can be used to sort groups of people, independent of age, gender, and market. I would much prefer to see Indian innovators create their own mobile applications for their own communities in the longer term.

Figure 2. The device created by Khushi Baby, Inc. (United States) enables health workers in India to interface with infant medical data through an NFC-tag-enabled digital necklace. (Images courtesy of Khushi Baby, Inc.)

Best NFC Startup

The first-place winner in the “Best NFC Startup” category was Dimple, Inc. (Latvia) for its NFC-tag-based programmable buttons that personalize and streamline a user’s daily tasks (Figure 3). The highly customizable NFC sticker comes with two or four shortcut buttons that can be adhered to the back of an NFC-enabled device. From speed dialing, launching a flashlight, or other most-used apps, to creating an extra play button or controlling smart home controls, Dimple offers endless personalized options using the phone’s own energy. Now, that is innovative stuff!

Let’s try and make next year’s competition even bigger, better, and stronger. I urge more companies to enter into as many categories as they are eligible. Do not rush the process or rehash your ready-made marketing materials, but spend time to address the various NFC Forum criteria. The entrants who were clearly ahead of the game were those that had a fully functional system/app with real end users and could convey the social benefits with tangible evidence. I was personally struck by the effort of startups to get going in this growing market. Many hundreds of hours of energy were exerted, and the passion came through. Keep up the great work, and remember to remain customer focused. The returns will follow with time. Congratulations to all those who participated in the competition.

References

1. NFC industry customer experience and product design leaders share 2017 outlook and predictions on NFC technology, Dec. 2016, [online] Available: http://nfc-forum.org/nfc-industry-customer-experience-and-product-design-leaders-share-2017-outlook-and-predictions-on-nfc-technology/.

2. Near field communication market worth 21.84 billion USD by 2020, Mar. 2017, [online] Available: http://www.marketsandmarkets.com/PressReleases/near-field-communication.asp.

3. K. Michael, M. G. Michael, Innovative Automatic Identification and Location-Based Services: From Bar Codes to Chip Implants, Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2009.
 
4. Back to Undithal Khushi Baby, July 2014, [online] Available: http://khushi-baby.blogspot.com.au/2014/07/back-to-undithal.html.

Keywords

Awards, Mobile communication, Speech coding, Technological innovation

Citation: Katina Michael, "Novel NFC Applications to Enrich Our Connections", IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine, July, Vol. 6, No. 3, pp. 118-121, 2017.