Big plans, small chips: near field communication awaits breakthrough
As the tech revolution thunders along, in the near future most smartphone functions may be available without resorting to actions as archaic as actually touching the screen.
The idea is for mobile phones to effortlessly trade data just by being near one another. At a cash register for example, the gadgets will process payments simply by being waved at the till.
When the time comes that technology has largely negated the need for such cumbersome accoutrements as fingers, people will have near field communication (NFC) to thank.
However, before it can make its breakthrough, experts have some security kinks they need to work out, and vendors need to decide which standard will become predominant.
“The topic of near field communication has been filtering through the media for years,” says Marc-Oliver Reeh of the Centre for Near Field Communication at the University of Hanover in Germany. But, he notes, “not a lot has happened yet”.
For now, most NFC devices are tags or stickers which can be affixed to or used with a smartphone, while mobiles with Android 4.0 or higher can trade contact information, pictures and music, just by holding them up to one another briefly.
Experts like Reeh also see a lot more potential. “One’s surroundings could become smarter,” he notes. That could mean an NFC tag could be integrated into the floor of a home, sending out an alarm if it notices that a person with disabilities falls down.
Others foresee a day when an NFC-equipped mobile could double as a car key or a library card. But the “killer app” will come when NFC can be used to allow touchless payment via mobile phones.
So far, there are some credit cards that have been affixed with NFC transmitters, allowing payments of up to $30 that go through when the card is held up near a reader. PIN codes or signatures are required if the purchase exceeds that limit.
But, even though experts are convinced there should be no technology hurdles, security concerns have kept payment systems from being integrated into mobiles. The major concern is that personal data might be pulled off a mobile during a payment transaction, especially since information is transferred in unencrypted form during NFC payments.
Yet Reeh is not worried. NFC “is a relatively safe technology”, he says, pointing out that signals are only transmitted a few centimetres, meaning most criminals would not be able to get close enough to access information.
He does concede that a significant hurdle will be standardisation and advises waiting until manufacturers agree on one standard before customers should jump into NFC. Otherwise, a consumer might end up with a device that can’t communicate with his bank or mobile service provider.
With regards to warding off the potential criminal element and their prying eyes, the best advice at present is just a tad more traditional – go all extraterrestrial conspiracy theorist and wrap your NFC card in aluminium foil.