TechWeekEurope Europe speaks to the creators of NFC to discover their secrets behind the technology
Near Field Communication (NFC) technology was co-invented by NXP Semiconductors engineers Franz Amtmann and Philippe Maugars (pictured above) in 2002, and since then has steadily grown to be one of the most widely-used mobile technologies in the world, forming the backbone for much of the connected device and mobile commerce industry, and is a vital part of services such as Apple Pay.
Recently awarded the EPO European Inventor award for their work on NFC, TechWeekEurope spoke to Franz and Phillipe to get their opinions on their motivations and how they see the technology developing in the future.
What were some of the motivations behind your work creating NFC? Did you have any particular inspirations?
We were working with MIFARE at the time, which was a pre-cursor communicative technology launched in 1994. The technology is used in cards to enable authentication efficiently across banking, transport and ticketing, but we wanted take this to the next step.
The main priority for NFC was to define a low power solution that allowed cards and readers to easily communicate. We also wanted to make an all-encompassing ‘umbrella’ solution, which allowed the integration of additional protocols like FeliCa, a contactless smart card system, and ISO 15693, the international standard for Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) vicinity card and smart label communication, all in the same device.
We wanted to integrate the technology we were working on into mobile devices. This wasn’t without its challenges. Whilst the invention of the technology was surprisingly, fairly straightforward, integrating it into the market wasn’t so easy. Price and infrastructure were the main sticking points.
Are you surprised at how many and varied use cases now exist for the technology?
I am, but we shouldn’t forget it took a long time to get here. Lack of infrastructure was a real bottleneck for a while. Now though, the applications are growing rapidly. It’s particularly impressive to see how easily NFC solutions can be designed for even extreme low cost platforms, such as the Raspberry PI.
I also personally appreciate how easy it is to integrate this technology in my existing smart home installations. In fact, I believe Philippe’s wife regularly lets him know when dinner is ready through the NFC applications within their own home!
I always knew it had the potential to be hugely disruptive, but I must admit I am a bit surprised by how far we’ve come. Success was always going to depend on the strength of the NFC ecosystem. As the company behind the invention of NFC, NXP really threw its weight behind creating this. We set up the NFC Forum, a non-profit group dedicated to setting standards and growing that ecosystem overtime. Once the infrastructure was in place, adoption accelerated and we’re seeing more and more innovative use case of NFC as time goes on.
When working to create NFC in 2002, though, I never imagined it would one day come in a tattoo!
What’s the most innovative use of NFC you’ve seen?
Being able to unlock and use all of the features of connected cars and smart homes from your phone is fantastic. Supported by likes of the user interface for home appliances and pairing of Bluetooth devices, smartphones will essentially become the ‘remote control’ to our lives. It’s this kind of convenience that will really drive the integration of NFC into everything we do. The commercialisation of NFC will only accelerate as more companies awaken to this.
Right now, there’s a lot of focus on the connected car and great strides have been made here. I can only see this proliferating in the near future. The possibilities are endless though, and that’s what excites me.
The energy harvesting capability of NFC is a great tool for saving battery life. Wireless chips actually use the energy generated from NFC and RFID actions to power up devices. This could be used for powering the lighting on a smartphone for example, reducing the amount of battery-powered applications and improving overall battery life. Some devices could even operate without batteries completely. Other innovations include; passport reading apps, such as the one being developed by the UK Home Office; smart tags in everyday products which drive user engagement and increase sales conversion; and even NFC pinball machines and board games!
What is NXP doing that is most exciting with NFC technology?
NXP is permanently developing and releasing new generations of NFC chips with improved features, as well as providing user friendly tools for developing new applications. The automotive industry is rapidly evolving and NXP is at the forefront of this shift, helping transform the car from a simple mode of transport to a personalised mobile information hub – providing electrical interfaces to connect a vehicle to the outside world.
A lot of work is actually being done within the gaming industry too. Character-based toys can use NFC to add different powers or additional weapons, and play with newly added capabilities. NXP is also working with more traditional aspects such as board games and trading cards, bringing these inanimate objects to life.
The industry is focused largely on mobile payments right now. NFC is the embedded technology behind contactless, enabling a new generation of ‘tap and pay’ transactions with almost immediate processing. It’s a convenience revolution for millions of consumers around the world. It’s certainly exciting for NXP to help drive this by leading the development of new Integrated Circuit (IC) generations. By implementing these chips, major smartphone providers can put themselves in the driver seat when it comes to standardisation of NFC.
How do you think NFC transactions can be best secured?
The ‘physics’ of NFC means devices have to be within a few centimetres of an NFC reader for information to be transmitted. This makes middle man attacks nearly impossible. The easy integration into systems using secure elements where information such as bank details is stored offers increased security. Lastly, secure over-the-air technology for remote management enables immediate remote blocking of the payment application if a device is lost or stolen. This works in a similar fashion to blocking a bank card – a further safeguard.
NFC is just as secure as contactless smart cards. On top of the proximity benefits Franz mentioned, banks, transport systems or whoever deploys the technology can complement this with their own security measures, such as two factor authentication like fingerprint or password verification. This further enhances safety of NFC applications, providing peace of mind to consumers.
How do you see NFC affecting the next few years of technological development?
Applications for NFC have exploded because it has the key advantage of offering simple and intuitive solutions – both highly desirable requirements in the market. Over the next few years, NFC will no doubt see smartphones become even more central to our everyday lives. As well as the growth of mobile payments through ApplePay, Android Pay, and Samsung Pay, NFC is also likely to become a key facilitator of the Internet of Things (IoT).
Integrating NFC tags into everyday items like food products will allow smartphones to become an interface between these products and our household appliances. You could therefore scan a ready meal with your phone, then tap the same device to an NFC tag on a microwave or oven which will automatically set the right temperature and cooking time. We will also see more uses of Type 5 Tag, a form of ‘open NFC’ that has more communication range than traditional tags. This will drive forward Industry 4.0 by encapsulating a whole wealth of product data during the supply chain process, for instance.
NFC presents great opportunities to streamline processes for industry. We expect there will be a big focus on this in years to come.
Using smart factories as an example, NFC allows machines to communicate with each other ensuring that they can adapt to changes and customisations during the manufacturing process. Tags in products will also allow manufacturers to manage the supply chain, ensuring products have passed all the necessary quality checks and are shipped to the right locations etc.
What argument would you give a developer or CIO debating whether or not to implement NFC technology?
NFC is easy to integrate, offers the convenience that today’s consumers crave and also presents significant business opportunities in terms of improving efficiencies and driving engagement.
Integrating NFC smart tags into clothing for example allows businesses to easily identify, locate and authenticate each item along the supply chain. This enables them both to combat the grey market by preventing theft etc. and also ensures a seamless checkout process. From the customer perspective, the NFC tags can provide additional information about products in store, including access to customer reviews for example, or suggestions for complimentary products. This increases both conversion and cross selling. Post-purchase, the retailer or brand will be able to track when, where and how often the tag is tapped. This info can then be fed into loyalty programmes and personalised marketing.
NFC is cost-effective, easy to implement, intuitive to use, scalable in terms of security and features and opens up a whole new world of capabilities for your products and processes. What more could you want?
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