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.

Social and Economic Sustainability

Back in 1997, Katina would use International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimates of incoming and outgoing voice and data teletraffic tables for her work in strategic network engineering. She was particularly amazed when viewing these figures in global thematic maps, as thick arrows would always flow in and out from developed nations, and yet significantly thinner arrows would be flowing from developing nations, despite the difference in population counts [1]. That image has stuck with her as a depiction of how the world is, no doubt, related to historical events. Efforts required to bring those arrows into equilibrium at a country level seem somewhat impossible, given the digital divide.

As initiatives like Project Loon attempt to grant all peoples Internet access [2], there are still many places on Earth that have limited or no connectivity whatsoever. Some of these places reject services, believing that they will bring with them even greater harm, such as deforestation or a destabilization of culture and religious practice. And yet, developed nations uphold that they are in fact educating, providing, and allowing for longer-term economic and social sustainability through their technological solutions. For example, Jason has recently returned from the eastern part of the Maharashtra state of India where the use of technology in remote villages such as Jamnya appears at first glance to be at direct odds to the subsistence way of traditional village life. However, on second glance, the benefits of technology offer endless possibilities from education to weather station assistance with crop plantings. See also, Khanjan's projects in Africa [3].

But what about long-term stability in developing nations? For example, as we strive to mainstream alternate energy sources and make them accessible in resource poor communities [4], how do we think beyond the technological and economic dimensions and ensure respect for social, political, and environmental imperatives? Computers, including the tiny but powerful ones on cell phones can be game-changers, but they will not save lives directly. They cannot be eaten by a starving population. And then, they need to be serviced and maintained. Jason, along with Katina's husband Michael, visited and taught Karen refugee students in camps and remote villages on the Thai-Burma border [5]. They quickly realized that computers work only if they are connected to electricity. Someone has to pay the bill. Computers can thereafter continue to work, if no parts go missing, and they are fully enclosed within a shelter that has windows, and are not damaged. Computers can be operated by people who have received some training and where there is some connectivity. It is hopeless to want to share files or use remote applications if bandwidth is lower than 56 kbps. For example, Martin Murillo et al.'s article in this special section emphasizes that leading humanitarians have identified data communications for remote health offices as one of the top three tools that will contribute to the fulfilment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Today, as many as 80% of the world's citizens reside in areas with mobile phone coverage [6]. Increasing access to computers and cellular devices has allowed telemedicine systems to flourish in developing countries. But these devices can only really work if technologies are integrated into local communities in bottom-up socialization practices. They can work if they are embraced by locals, and harnessed for good by local companies, NGOs, elders, and other stakeholders. While the number of mHealth and telemedicine systems is growing, the benefits of these technologies are yet to be fully realized. Many mHealth ventures in resource-constrained environments suffer from “pilotitis” – an inability to expand beyond the initial pilot and ultimately become sustainable ventures. Khanjan has led the design and execution of a cash-positive telemedicine venture in central Kenya that now has seven full-time employees. His students recently conducted a study of the failure modes that plague the growth of mHealth pilots in the developing world. This study of over 50 projects in Africa and Asia uncovered a wide range of barriers including financial challenges, business structures, technological limitations, and cultural misalignments. Once again, some of the greatest challenges were related to bottom-up socialization, melding Western and indigenous knowledge, and integration of new technologies, approaches, and business models into traditional ways of life. Khanjan has captured the nuts and bolts of “how things work” and why projects fail in a series of short stories called The Kochia Chronicles: Systemic Challenges and the Foundations of Social Innovation. These narratives take readers headlong into the lives of people in a quintessential African village as they usher in an era of design, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

It is difficult not to be cynical about initiatives such as Zuckerberg's hopes to wire the world [7]. These technological initiatives sound good, but with computing also will come social implications. Not all of these implications will be positive.

But back now to getting those inflows and outflows to look more alike, as newly industrialized countries have experienced growth since the inception of the mobile phone (e.g., India), broadband (e.g., Singapore), and manufacturing machinery (e.g., Thailand). The bottom line is that to overcome the endemic failures that inhibit the sustainability and scalability of well-meaning projects, a truly systemic and participatory approach is essential. Rather than dwelling on the problems caused by, or that might result from, the digital divide, let us preoccupy ourselves with considering digital inclusion as a primary aim. Digital inclusion is not just about offering equity but about making substantial self-determined improvements to the lives and livelihoods of people in resource-poor settings. The digital divide will never be entirely bridged, but inclusion can be propelled through social innovation, concerted time, and effort supported by multi-lateral funding from local and global stakeholders who not only understand the need for change but are passionate about the human need and its interdependence with global peace and sustainability.

IEEE Keywords: Special issues and sections, Investments, Communication Services, Internet, Government policies,Social factors, Social network services, Economics, Sustainable development, Environmental factors

Citation: Jason Sargent, Khanjan Mehta, Katina Michael, "Social and Economic Sustainability", IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 34(1), March 2015, pp. 17 - 18