By Andy Williams, Associate Editor, Avisian Publications
Whether it’s linking a Facebook account, or other social networking site, with your NFC-enabled phone, using the technology to reduce gate costs for transit agencies or using it in your home as a smart doorbell, Austrian researcher Gerald Madlmayr sees great things ahead for near field communication.
If you’re not familiar with that name, you may know him under the pseudonym, the “NFC Guru,” a post he occupied for two months earlier this year. It was probably his bullish attitude about NFC that prompted Nokia, a leader in manufacturing NFC-compliant phones, to entice Madlmayr to take on that mantle.
Madlmayr is a research associate at the NFC Research Center in Hagenberg, Austria, a joint-venture of NXP Semiconductors, mobilkom Austria, Assa Abloy (Omnikey) and the University of Applied Sciences of Hagenberg. There his work is focused on NFC/RFID-based applications as well as security and privacy in such systems.
While he doesn’t work for Nokia, he has done some consulting work for the cell phone giant on NFC projects. He has also conducted several NFC pilots.
Madlmayr was involved in one of the first NFC trials in 2006 in Hagenberg on the University of Applied Sciences, Upper Austria, campus.
That trial was launched in November 2006 and ran until July 2007. Some 100 subjects – 50 students and 50 professors, lecturers and employees – were given NFC-enabled mobile phones to test and evaluate the services implemented. The trial tested a micro payment and access system based on Mifare, as well as loyalty cards for employees and a peer-to-peer information service.
Since then Madlmayr’s lab has participated in other NFC competitions. In 2008, his research lab won the Operator Award at Gemalto’s SIMagine Competition for its SmartDoorBell, an access control solution that replaces a standard intercom system with an NFC reader that works with an ordinary mobile phone for use in family homes as well as large office complexes with multiple entrances.
Information about the caller is sent via the NFC interface to a proxy, which then transfers it on to an access management application running on the homeowner’s handset. If the person chooses to open the door, the access management application generates a response to the proxy, which in turn, unlocks the door.
No phone needed
His NFC Guru blog was designed to show how simple it can be to write an NFC application, he says. “In the beginning you don’t even need a phone. There are nice tools from Nokia that allow you to use all the NFC functionality that a mobile phone provides in an emulator on the PC. Additionally there are lots of code examples and Wikis on the Web dealing with NFC development.”
The guru site was designed to lure more software developers into the NFC world,” he says. “NFC allows intuitive interactions to make your most-personal-device-ever a nice haptic (as in touch screen) interface.”
Madlmayr says he got into NFC four-years ago when he first began work at the research lab. “In the beginning I loved to develop mobile apps and then I came across RFID technology. Well, NFC is the thing that combines both and thus I looked deeper into this topic,” he says.
While his NFC Guru column was meant to spur people to write NFC applications, he found just as many, if not more, requests for help. “I got more private emails with support requests, most of them with professional problems, than posts,” he says. He also has received several job offers.
He says that most of the people who contacted him wanted “to run either highly secure applications in the secure element and didn’t know where to start working.” What he didn’t find were developers willing to divulge their ideas.
“I think the Web site is an important enabler, to show people that developing NFC apps is simple and discusses how you can benefit from starting to use NFC in your business,” he says.
NFC and Facebook
Madlmayr also has a couple projects in the proposal stage. “A very popular area for NFC applications are social applications or social networks that make use of NFC for getting in touch with people,” he says. With social networks, he explains, “you could use NFC to pair me with a friend on Facebook so I don’t have to search for him. Or I could be meeting someone in a bar and we could touch each other’s phones. Then it becomes a virtual interaction, a link between the digital and physical world.”
Another example, if a member of a site is at a bar he could touch a tag in that bar and rate it. “The Facebook API would allow us to do this already. We’re working on building a client for an NFC device. Or we could do some kind of navigation system where you just punch in where you are, you’re waiting somewhere or you’re at the movies and it sends a message to your Facebook site,” Madlmayr says.
With transit, contactless ticketing is already popular but he’d like to incorporate NFC to eliminate gates or turnstiles. “You could have a small RFID reader at the train’s entry point or check in at the seat just by touching a reader,” he says. “Another scheme is checking in and checking out via a smart poster at a train station, with the fare automatically deducted. There are different approaches for ticketing schemes for countries without gates. In Germany it would take a billion Euros to install gates. We are currently writing a research proposal with public transit operators in Upper Austria to pilot such a system,” he adds.
Making NFC commercially viable
Still, Madlmayr knows that full commercial deployments are a ways off. While he admits that NFC commercial roll outs are hampered by the lack of phones, he thinks the bigger problem has to do with the silicone that goes into those phones to make them NFC-compatible.
“A lot of people blame handset manufacturers, but if someone says they need 10 million pieces to produce a secure element on the SIM, no silicone manufacturer can produce that many to support the single wire protocol,” the NFC standard set by GSMA, says Madlmayr.
As he puts it, there isn’t a fully working ecosystem to support NFC yet. “There is no manufacturer on this planet that has produced one single device you can purchase in enough quantities,” he adds, “and handset manufacturers aren’t able to produce new phones because they can’t get the NFC chips.”
Madlmayr also says higher data rates for NFC is needed. “Today you have data rates of a maximum for 424 kilobits and we are already thinking of having a several megabit transfer rate. When you see that RFID passport at an airport take 10 or 20 seconds to read, with high data rates you can just tap and go.”
But he will continue researching and working on NFC because he knows it’s just a matter of time before the ecosystem catches up with demand. And even though the NFC Guru is no longer officially live, Madlmayr says he will still answer questions and “I intend to keep posting some new articles.”
He is also willing to help other universities who might be starting their own NFC labs. “We have the core competency for NFC and we can hand this over to other universities so they don’t make the same mistakes,” adds Madlmayr.
Does he consider his NFC Guru site a success? “It depends,” he says. “From a personal perspective, it was a success because lots of people have been contacting me because they have NFC problems. I think it was a success for Nokia because it did enable other people to start developing NFC applications.”