NFC Tags: Novelty or Ready for Prime Time?

A couple months ago, I ran across something from Samsung called “TecTiles”. Coupled with Samsung’s Android app, you could use these stylish $3 each “tiles” to cause your phone to perform functions – just by waving your phone over the tag. From placing a call to opening a web page … turning on GPS to dimming the screen … it seemed like an endless supply of possibility.

I got excited.

This technology is similar in design to the “Speedpass” or other “swipe and go” pay systems out there at gas pumps and some retail vendors; a little RFID type tag is “programmed” to alert the swiping device to do certain things. This is, of course, provided your device has NFC (Near Field Communications) which comes standard on most Samsung devices (Galaxy Nexus, S3 et al) as well as some HTC and other devices (sorry, not on Apple products at this time – but rumor is; soon).

While NFC seemed to be the “prime” candidate for handling mobile payment transactions it seems that these little “smart tags” can be exploited for a great many things.

It sounded good to me. For $15 (for 5 tags) I was interested in playing with this “new” technology.

My quest to find these TecTiles locally turned out to be a complete waste of time. Nobody carried them; nobody had heard of them. When I described what they were and what phones could use them – I was constantly told to “check back after the S3 comes out”.

Yeah, great – thanks. I finally decided to just order a set from Samsung directly, but then the TekTiles magically disappeared off their website.

Now I was frustrated.

I spent some time on Google, trying to find another vendor that sold them – and learned a lot of valuable information.

First, TekTiles were just these smart tags in fancy packaging with the Samsung name on them. There was a standard for these tags, and they were available in a ‘generic” form much cheaper (about $1 each) from another company – Tagstand. As a bonus, you weren’t limited to Samsung’s own application to use them; turned out I was LATE to the NFC tag game – and a little tool called NFC Task Launcher was already in existence and BLEW AWAY the Samsung app.

My frustration turned into delight.

I placed my order and purchased 10 NFC tags. As I waited for my tags to arrive, I started digging into the NFC Task Launcher app to see just what this thing was capable of. It was then I realized the secret of how this whole thing worked and why it JUST might be “The Next Big Thing(tm)”.

NFC tags hold about 132 bytes of data – including some standardized code that works across most mobile devices. For example; you can put a code on the tag that says “Open This Page”, and provide the page URL. When ANY NFC mobile device swipes this – the page will open. You can do this with a “Send Email” and a couple other standard actions – nothing too dramatic.

So what? That doesn’t sound very impressive, does it? Fortunately, developers are smarter than the rest of us. The figured out a way to make 132 bytes of data useful.

Macros.

Without special software, NFC tags can only do a couple of things – it’s true. But, when you have SOFTWARE that can interpret a couple of bytes of data as:

1) Turn off GPS
2) Turn on WIFI
3) Dim the screen
4) Set alarm for 7am
5) Turn on alarm
6) Silence notifications
7) Turn on vibrate
8) …

Now you have something. That’s exactly what NFC Task Launcher does; takes those 132 bytes and makes them work for you. Technically, you could have that one little NFC tag perform a macro of over 100 commands – just by swiping your phone over one little tag.

What’s the catch? Well, the catch is – it only works when you have the app installed. You tell NFC Task Launcher what to perform – it encodes the macro sequence on the NFC tag at your command – then, it executes that macro when the NFC tag is seen by the NFC reader on your device. This macro information can be read by any app running NFC Task Launcher and it knows what commands you’ve done. Therefore, a macro you create on your device running NFC Task Launcher will do the SAME things on your wife’s device running NFC Task Launcher.

Obviously, if you have NFC Task Launcher launching an app on your device that isn’t on the other device – that isn’t going to work. Still, it’s very cool to be able to share most tag functionality between NFC Task Launcher installs.

The NFC Task Launcher app doesn’t just read the tags – but it writes them as well. It is brain dead easy to write to the tags – and you can even lock the tags so they can never be erased or re-written to again. This might be useful if you keep a tag on your desk at work (more on this in a minute).

Now that I had everything I needed – what was I going to do with these things?

My first goal was to identify repetitive tasks I did every day – and see if I could find a way to automate them with these tags.

The first most obvious use is to silence my phone. Completely. No ringer, no notifications, no vibrations – for when I head into meetings. I don’t use any cool ringtones anymore (the kind that prove embarrassing if they go off during a meeting) but it’s still rude to have my loud ringer pop off in the middle of a presentation.

This seemed easy enough. After spending some time playing with NFC Task Launcher, I was ready. A few simple macro commands – poof. A few seconds later, I had programmed the tag – and I was ready to test it.

So, I picked my phone back up and swiped over the tag. Nothing. Hmmm… What’s going on? I learned quickly that NFC tags cannot be read unless the phone is awake; unfortunate, but I get it from a security standpoint. You don’t want to have someone flooding an area with porn website tags and inadvertantly opening your phone to Two Girls and a Cup – right when your kids are looking over your shoulder to see the new Elmo app.

I woke my phone and swiped the tag. Hmmm … Android asked me if I wanted to open this tag with NFC Task Launcher or the Opera web browser. That’s odd. Obviously I wanted to use NFC Task Launcher – so I set that for the default.

BOOM – right in front of my eyes, my phone went deathly silent. SWEET! Now all I needed was another tag to “wake it up”.

Turns out NFC Task Launcher was one step ahead of me. They offer a TOGGLE TAG macro; that is the FIRST time you swipe it – it does one thing; the second time you swipe it – it does another. HANDY! So I changed to a Toggle type tag and set one condition to all quiet – and the other to “all on”.

Once I tested it on the tag, I took the tag and stuck it on the back of my building access badge – that I carry with me all the time at work. A quick swipe, I’m ready for my meeting – when I come out, another swipe and I’m ready for the wife to call.

Another use I found was sticking a tag on my sun visor that calls my wife. I do it a lot, and it is a nice hands-free (so to speak) way of getting her dialed up. It is worth noting that you STILL have to hit the SEND button to place the call – but at least I don’t have to find the contact, select MOBILE, then hit send.

Because I telework twice a week, my wake up time changes from 6am to 7am on those days. While we have a dual alarm clock in my bedroom, my wife has Alarm 1 and I have Alarm 2 (set for 6am – the wake up time three days a week). Thanks to a smart tag by the bed, my wife can bring my phone into the bedroom and put the phone down on the tag, and the phone will auto set to wake me up at 7am. Sure, I could set a regular alarm on my phone – but people working odd shifts could have two, three or more tags with different alarms based on which shift, day of the week, etc. they need.

Another great use is to toggle your battery sucking GPS on, launch Maps or some other GPS driven app – when you get into the car. I’m planning to have one turn on GPS and launch a Car Locator app for the holidays. Parking at the mall, it’s a pain to find your car. If I have a tag, it will enable my GPS and let me set my “walk back” location in the app. Then when I get back in the car, I can toggle GPS off.

The app developers offer some ideas of their own:

  • Turn on Bluetooth, turn off Wifi and start your favorite music app when you place it in a dock or scan a tag in your car
  • Set your ringer to vibrate, dim the display and set an alarm when you scan a tag on your night stand
  • Start up Wifi and automatically connect to your home network when you come home (this also works great for guests so they never have to enter your wireless network info manually)

According to the developers you can perform the following functions from a tag swipe using NFC Task Launcher:

  •  Turn Wifi on or off
  •  Turn Bluetooth on or off
  •  Make Bluetooth Discoverable
  •  Turn Airplane mode on or off
  •  Launch any installed Application
  •  Configure a new Wifi connection and connect
  •  Configure and enable Portable Hotspot
  •  Turn Auto-sync on or off
  •  Turn Auto-rotation on or off
  •  Turn Notification light on or off
  •  Set Display brightness and auto-brightness
  •  Launch any Tasker Task (for users of Tasker)
  •  Chang Ringtone
  •  Change Notification Tone
  •  Changing Ringer Mode (Normal/Silent/Vibrate)
  •  Changing Ringer Volume
  •  Changing Media Volume
  •  Changing Alarm Volume
  •  Changing Notification Volume
  •  Set vibration
  •  Set Alarm (both a fixed time and as a timer)
  •  Check in with Google Latitude, Foursquare, Facebook and Google Places
  •  Send a tweet on Twitter directly from the tag
  •  Start / Stop media playback
  •  Turn GPS on or off (root Required)
  •  Turn Mobile Data on or off (root required)
  •  Changing Display Timeout
  •  Changing Auto-Rotation
  •  Changing Notification Light

Once I got something up and running, my last test was to see just how “far” my phone could read a tag – and just how strong the signal “ping” was.  My mind started thinking about how cool it would be from a marketing standpoint to put these tags into DVDs and Blu rays, CD jewel cases, etc.  Could a tag be read from the inside?  I tested with all sorts of barriers between the tag and my Galaxy Nexus – turns out that the tests were inconclusive.  Some things let the signal through – others “less thick” seemed to impede the signal.  Oddly enough, my bus pass (one of the perks of government work – they like you to be Green) can be read from INSIDE my wallet by my phone (time to change the exp date to 2099 instead of 2013 – heheheh).  My wallet is a pretty thick leather so who knows?  Of course I’m sure a lot hinges on the NFC chip in your phone or device.  So – I’m afraid the answer is; keep the tag exposed without barriers if you want best results.

Summary

Smart tags have an incredible wealth of functionality; if you’re willing to put in the time to figure out how to best use them for your needs – and you’re willing to spend the time to create the macros and write them to the tags. While some tasks are “no brainers”, you’ll need to use some imagination to really get the most out of smart tags.

The cost of entry is practically negligible – as long as you have an NFC equipped device. The software is free, the tags are $1 each or so.

The biggest barrier to NFC is social acceptance. Much like QR codes, it could take a while for smart tags to catch on so that “everyone” knows how to use them. This will really require a “standardized” app (like what Samsung is trying to do) and it will require other device manufacturers to get on board (after all; it isn’t real, patentable or legally useful until Apple “invents” it for the rest of the masses).

Still, this isn’t something that requires mass adoption to be USEFUL to you RIGHT NOW. I’m sure most of you reading this article ALREADY HAVE at least THREE ideas to use smart tags for. You don’t need Apple’s blessing to use smart tags. You don’t need Samsung to ship TekTiles. You don’t need Google to endorse their use. The tech is ready right now to enhance your life. What have you got to lose?

About Shane Monroe

Shane R. Monroe has been doing technical and social commentary writing for over 20 years. Google+