Since we’re approaching the new year, it’s prediction time. This post is about emerging technology that I see making inroads in education, training, and informal learning by the end of 2012—Near Field Communication (NFC).
NFC permits quick exchange of small amounts of data between mobile devices, personal computers, and smart objects. The technology allows wireless communications over a small distance (10 cm or almost 4 inches). In practice, this means that when a user brings an NFC-enabled device in proximity to an object containing an NFC-sensitive device (i.e., an NFC tag or another NFC-enabled device), the user can retrieve information about that object and in some cases, share information.
NFC-enabled devices can operate:
- To read and write data
- To establish peer-to-peer communication with another NFC-enabled device
- As smart card-containing devices (ISO 14443), when switched into card emulation mode (which can be used for secure contactless communications such as payment and ticketing transactions)
Some examples of what NFC-enabled devices can do are shown in this video, “Parallel Lives” by Nokia. Despite the somewhat idealized nature of the video (which seems to imply that if you don’t have an NFC-enabled device you will wear bad hats, miss trains, be frowned at by your boss, and never see the movies you want to see) , the ability to use NFC devices in discovery and sharing activities is certainly of interest in education, training, and informal learning.
Currently available NFC phones
A list of NFC phones can be found here. Note that an NFC phone or a “phone with NFC technology” isn’t necessarily fully NFC-enabled, so remember to make sure the device is capable of writing as well as reading information if that’s where your interest lies. The Google Nexus S, for example, is read-only. Currently, fully enabled devices are available only as trial versions in the U.S.
NFC tag generators
An NFC tag is essentially a printed circuit integrating an antenna and stored data which can be read by an NFC-enabled device. NFC tag encoders (tools that code the stored data) represent additional emerging technology that probably needs to become more user-friendly for more widespread adoption of NFC in instructional design applications.
Some currently available commercial NFC tag generators/encoders include:
- NEXPerts Tag Master Software Kit (more information here)
- Tag Tool (Ericcson Labs)
- SpringCard NFC tool (more information here)
Consider the basic actions that an NFC-enabled device can mediate after coming in proximity to an NFC-tagged object:
- Launch a browser
- Send a text message
- Make a telephone call
- Save data for later review (e.g., store a text message, bookmark a URL, save a telephone number in contacts)
- Open an application for editing
- Receive check-in information and obtain rewards (e.g., coupons, points registered by a third-party system, etc)
Additionally, bear in mind that NFC-enabled devices don’t have to be phones. They can include:
- Cameras (that can transmit information about digital photos to a printer)
- Medical sensors, such as glucose monitors, scales, blood pressure monitors, etc., which can read biometric information and provide a relevant health-related message to a user via an NFC-enabled device
Near-term applications* for NFC devices as learning tools include:
- Access to performance support tools at locations where these tools are needed
- The ability to document that certain activities have been performed by bringing an NFC-enabled device in contact with a tagged object at a location
- Physical bookmarking or the ability to save data to your NFC-enabled device simply by touching a tagged object
- Any of the applications generally attributed to QR codes
*Near term because they can be implemented with read-only devices.
Future applications** include:
- Sharing information, images, and videos simply by touching one phone to another (e.g., social learning activities)
- Accessing medical information (information about remote activities that should be undertaken when certain types of biometric data are observed, providing procedural information at point-of-need)
**Dependent on wider availability of NFC-enabled devices (i.e., read/write, peer-to-peer devices).
Some current use cases
NFC-enabled devices already have been used for educational applications.
Smart Posters for Higher Education
In one use case, NFC tagging was used to create a “smart poster” for the University of Córdoba (Spain), providing information about University faculty and services through the inclusion of multiple NFC tags in a poster format. Users could pull information they needed by bringing their NFC-enabled device in proximity to zones of data associated with different NFC tags (Miraz, Ruiz, & Gómez-Nieto, 2009).
In addition to allowing students to access information about faculty, degrees, courses, and research groups, students could wave their mobile at the poster to download a campus map. The smart poster also included a tag that permitted users to automatically request a ticket and make an appointment with a faculty secretary.
Note that the transactional application (scheduling an appointment) isn’t something a poster that included multiple QR codes could automatically implement. Additionally, in contrast to QR codes, NFC tags are visually less obtrusive, which means that they can be integrated along with other graphic and content elements in a more seamless way (see Figure 2 in Miraz, Ruiz, & Gómez-Nieto, 2009).
Smart Muse Mobile NFC Tour Guide Pilot Project
Launched on October 9 of this year, the Smart Muse project allowed teen visitors to the Centre Pompidou to wave an NFC-enabled devices (Wave-Me™ devices) at Wave-Me™ tags to access information in the museum and to share information with friends by touching their handsets together. The project was a result of a collaboration between Inside Contactless (now Inside Secure), ConnectThings, and Sagem Wireless. The Centre Pompidou’s video of the creation of the Smart Muse exhibit is shown here.
Bottom line: If you’re interested in quick one-way information transfer and easy-to-generate codes, QR codes currently are your best bet. However, as NFC-enabled devices become more widely available and NFC tags become easier to customize, the power of two-way interactivity can be exploited to make mobile devices even better tools for collaboration and location-based learning activities.
Miraz, G.M., Ruiz, I.L., & Gómez-Nieto, M.A. (2009). University of Things: Applications of Near Field Communication Technology in University Environments. The Journal of E-working, 3(1), 52-64. Retrieved from http://www.inderscience.com/www/info/ijwi/art/tjew3101.pdf
Additional Resources of Interest
- The NFC Forum
- NFC Forum FAQ page
- RFID NFC
- Near Field Communications World
- NFC News
- Architecture and Development of NFC Applications
- A Platform for Pervasive Infrastructures (from Proceedings of the 2009 Third International Conference on Next Generation Mobile Applications, Services and Technologies)
- An Introduction to Nearfield Communication and Contactless Communication API (Oracle article)
- Physical Browsing with NFC Technology