Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Tap your phone's potential with NFC technology

Make your Android device smarter using a little-known technology called NFC.

 
HANDY: If you have an NFC tag in your car, you can quickly turn on or off functions (like Bluetooth) on your smartphone.
 
NFC stands for near-field communication, a short-range wireless communication technology that enables the exchange of data between devices over about a 10cm distance.

In certain countries, NFC has already been used to turn smartphones with embedded NFC chips, into mobile wallets.

Instead of using cash or credit/debit cards, the part of the smartphone where the NFC chip is located (usually on the back cover or in the battery) is tapped on the scanner for the transaction to be charged to the user's account.

Some countries have trialled the usage of NFC as a means of payment for public transportation too. Think of NFC as using your smartphone as a Touch 'n Go card and you'll get the picture.

Tag it

There are more and more NFC-enabled Android smartphones landing on our shores. While the use of it here hasn't reached the same level as some other countries, it is not without its usefulness.

The most publicised use of NFC is the ability to transfer files at breakneck speed by just bumping two smartphones against each other.

While it's impressive, the true potential of this technology lies in an external accessory known as an NFC tag.

NFC tags are basically stickers that are able to store information inside them. With the aid of any NFC app, which can be found in abundance in the Google Play Store, users can design a set of actions for their device to execute and then save the commands on the tags.

Whenever an NFC-enabled device is tapped on the tag, it will execute the commands.

The good news is that the tags don't cost a bomb. Even better news is that as long as you don't select to permanently lock the tag, you can always rewrite the tags, so they're pretty good value for money.

A popular app for customising tags is NFC Task Launcher by Tagstand (bit.ly/GMNn32). Available for free in the Play Store, the app allows users to include two different sets of actions in one tag. For example, tapping it the first time will enable a feature, and tapping it again will disable it.

There are many practical uses for NFC tags. We most commonly use it in our cars. Previously, we used to have to go through the hassle of manually switching on our smartphone's Bluetooth each time we entered our car. Now, it can be done easily just by tapping our gadget on an NFC sticker that we have pasted on the dashboard.

Besides Bluetooth, we have also set it to switch off WiFi, make the ringtone louder, and screen brighter. Tapping it again once we have reached the destination will reverse all the actions that were enabled earlier.

Sleep on it

While it is not advisable to have a mobile phone by your bedside due to the radiation it is said to emit, most people will still stubbornly insist on having it around as it doubles as an alarm clock.

We are guilty of this unhealthy practice, but have an NFC tag pasted beside our beds to hopefully mitigate the adverse effects. The tag is set to switch the phone to flight mode, as well as to dim the screen to the lowest brightness level. When it's time to rise and shine, the tag will re-enable cellular data and increase the screen brightness.

REMINDERS: You can set timers for tasks you do often like washing your clothes.  
REMINDERS: You can set timers for tasks you do often like 
washing your clothes.
 
An interesting way to utilise the tag is by placing one on home appliances which require a specified amount of time to complete, such as a washing machine. If you're as absent-minded as us, once you start the machine, you can tap your Android on the tag to automatically start the timer so that you won't forget about collecting your laundry.

Sharing WiFi

Another use for NFC, which will be more practical once more smartphones have it, is the marketing possibilities it opens up. Instead of using QR codes, businesses can require their customers to just tap on an NFC tag to get more information about a promotion or their business.

Notice how most eateries offer free WiFi, but require a password to be entered? NFC tags have the capability to store wireless network settings, so all the consumers need to do is tap their devices on the tag and it will automatically connect to a wireless network, despite requiring a password.

This benefits the shop owners because customers will have to be physically present to connect to the WiFi, thus preventing non-customers from "stealing" their wireless connection.

This can also be used at home or the office when you want to allow guests to use the WiFi but don't want them to know the password. The tags can do more than just changing settings.

Users can prepare a text message and write it on the tag. Whenever your phone taps the tag, it will automatically send the text message direct to your desired recipient.

Very useful for those of you who usually report to your other half, or parents whenever leaving from work or school.

For those who aren't willing to spend or have no means of acquiring NFC tags, head to the Play Store and download AnyTAG NFC launcher by XtraSEC (bit.ly/ZEsf8l). Developed by Malaysians, this app enables NFC smartphones to detect any cards or devices that have NFC chips in them and associates an action with that device.

This means that us users won't have to specifically use NFC tags. We can make use of everyday cards around us, such as our MyKad and Touch 'n Go.

The good thing is that it only remembers the chip's ID and associates the desired actions with it, so it doesn't overwrite anything on the chip.

So don't worry about the card's chip getting messed up.

For those who are keen to make use of the NFC technology for the first time, do take note that it does not work when your Android's screen is locked.

That means that you will have to first unlock your device's screen before attempting to connect with another NFC device or tag.






 Hidden in plain sight

INSTANT GRATIFICATION: You can mirror content from your smartphone to your HDTV.  
INSTANT GRATIFICATION: You can mirror content from your 
smartphone to your HDTV.
 
NFC technology is most prevalent in smartphones but it is also being implemented in an increasing number of products, from toys to HDTVs.

Here's a list of products with built-in NFC which you may already have in your home.

HDTVs and cameras

Most new HDTVs come with the chip but it's not always in the TV itself. Sony is one of the companies that has integrated it into the remote control of selected Bravia HDTVs.

Just tapping the remote with your smartphone will allow you to mirror the smartphone's display on the big screen. This will allow you to browse the Web, share pictures and watch videos together with those around you.

If your Bravia doesn't come with one, you can still purchase the remote separately.

USEFUL: Sony Bravia 2013 LED TV has an NFC chip in the remote control.  
USEFUL: Sony Bravia 2013 LED TV has an NFC chip in the 
remote control.
 
Sony also makes speakers with NFC. One such model is the SRS-BTV5 wireless speaker. The compact model can double up as a speakerphone and has a rated battery life of up to five hours. Meanwhile, on the camera front, Samsung's NX300 allows photographers to easily transfer images to a smartphone or tablet via NFC.

Panasonic's DMC-GF6 camera also uses NFC for sharing images with a smartphone or tablet by touching them together. As soon as a photo is shot, the camera will send the image to the paired device. NFC also allows the camera to be remotely controlled.

Consoles and toys

One of the most popular toys on the market today is Activision's Skylanders. They are essentially figurines that are released in conjunction with the Skylanders games available for most consoles such as the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

NFC TOYS: Skylanders fingurine with the Portal of Power.  
NFC TOYS: Skylanders fingurine with the Portal of Power.
 
The game comes with an NFC device called the Portal of Power which is plugged into the game console. When a figurine, which also comes with built-in NFC, is placed on the Portal, a virtual version of the character appears in the game.

The interesting thing about the NFC in Skylanders is that it actually can store a limited amount of information, specifically the character's bio. When the figurine is taken to a friend's house to play, it will have all the levelled-up powers and customisation.

Of the popular videogame consoles, only one features NFC.

The chip is currently integrated into the Wii U's GamePad controller, and while it holds a lot of promise for future games, none actually make use of it.

PROMISING: The NFC chip is integrated into the Wii U's GamePad controller and holds a lot of potential for future games.  
PROMISING: The NFC chip is integrated into the Wii U's 
GamePad controller and holds a lot of potential for future games.
 
However, this is likely to change as game developers will inevitably find a use for it.

Notebooks

Lenovo has launched its ThinkPad Helix, a 11.6in Ultrabook powered by Windows 8.
It allows users to transfer data from compatible devices by just placing them close to it.

Lenovo ThinkPad Helix 
Lenovo ThinkPad Helix
 
The company plans to add more features such as allowing customers to make online purchases by tapping a credit card on its notebooks.

Sony, on the other hand, has announced that its latest Vaio Fit Ultrabook will also use this technology for sharing website URLs and other information with NFC-enabled devices

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