Even Disney agrees, NFC is one of the closest technologies we have to actual magic. It’s an extremely low-power radio signal that allows data to hop from a poster or sticker to a system like a smartphone. And it can enable all sorts of new user experiences that can connect the digital world to our analog environment. Imagine not just unlocking your car with a wave of your phone but having it launch Bluetooth, stream your favorite Pandora station, launch GPS, and text your spouse that you’re on your way home.
This is the potential of NFC, not tomorrow but today.
Instead, NFC is barely utilized in consumer electronics. We’ve had the standard in place since 2004. The bestselling smartphone in the world, the Samsung Galaxy S3, has an NFC chip embedded standard. And yet, as one NFC company recently told me, maybe 20% of the tech press they met at CES knew what NFC was.
“We demoed a charging mat, and some reporters thought NFC was sending power to the phone,” Kannyn Macrae, director of product management at Tylt, tells me. (Of course, NFC could no sooner power your phone than your car’s radio could power its windshield wipers.)
Tylt is an NFC hardware manufacturer. That basically means they make NFC tags–or radio-powered stickers that you can place on anything–along with custom products like a Bluetooth speaker and cellphone car cradle that incorporate NFC. They recently partnered up with Y Combinator software startup Tagstand. Tagstand is essentially an Android app, switched on by an NFC trigger (sticker), that can activate all sorts of other apps to carry out tasks automatically.
Together, they can empower totally customizable experiences. A Tylt NFC tag on your nightstand can trigger your Tagstand to turn off alerts and activate the alarm. An NFC tag placed at your desk can tell your phone to open Evernote, tether your phone’s 4G to your laptop, mute your ringer, and remind you in 30 minutes to get off Twitter. But the issue both companies have discovered with tags is that they’re, ultimately, too capable.
“We’ve had this app for a long time. We’ve had a huge group of hobbyists–20% use this app on a daily basis. Hobbyists figure out how to use things. They don’t need things simplified,” Tagstand Co-Founder Omar Seyal explains. “[But] one of the things we struggled with early on was, we’d give the app to someone else, and they’d be overwhelmed with what they could do. They didn’t know what they should do.”
“You can’t explain NFC like you can’t explain an expansive tech like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. But ‘I’m at the library and don’t need to find a place to plug in’–people can grasp that.”
In other words, NFC tags have been a tabula rasa lacking the necessary consumer context. That’s why Tylt and Tagstand are refocusing a partnership around specific devices. A bluetooth speaker. A phone dock. The funny thing is, even Macrae admits that his special, NFC Tunz speaker is no different than taking a Jawbone Jambox and sticking a cheap NFC sticker on it. But in a sense, to sell the tag, you have to sell the speaker, too.
“Given the low cost of the tags, I’ll add them to any product that makes sense,” he tells me.
It’s an ironic philosophy: Make products better for consumers by narrowing their scope. Telling a consumer less things they can do with something could make them more apt to buy it (or at least understand it).
And no doubt, maybe this graspability is why the focus of NFC today has mostly been around payments. Whether it’s Google Wallet or Apple’s inevitable iPhone payments, everyone wants to know when our smartphones will change the way we buy things. But even this perspective sells NFC short. You’re not just carrying a wallet, you’re carrying an identity–a digital footprint of tastes and preferences that can interact with the analog world. Maybe we do need a special speaker, car mount, or wallet to make consumers begin to understand NFC, but hopefully those products will only feed the platform’s true ingenuity.