There was buzz at CEDIA last year surrounding NFC – Near Field Communication – technology that one publication named one of the “Top 5 Home Technologies for 2012,” claiming it “could be the next big thing in home automation,” and being called “living in the future” by The Wall Street Journal.
Crestron said that NFC brought “new meaning to the term ‘personal space’” and even demonstrated the technology – calling it airConnect – in their massive booth at CEDIA. At the show, booth visitors could try out the tech and unlock doors and start playing music just by waving a smart phone over an embedded NFC tag.
The descriptions of what NFC, or airConnect, can do are certainly impressive. It “enables…customers to trigger personal settings on a room-by-room basis for lighting, temperature, shades, entertainment systems or any other devices connected to the control system when their smart phone is in proximity of the specially programmed NFC tag. The paper-thin tags, approximately one square-inch in size, can easily be embedded in convenient and multiple locations, such as behind wall keypads and faceplates.”
Further, unlike many of the other great and cool new things that come along, NFC is cheap. Like crazy cheap. NFC tags require no batteries, wiring or other special installation other than literally sticking them somewhere, and they cost about $1.00 each. Wave your device (phone or tablet) over a tag, and it draws power from the device, executes a quick security key “handshake,” and then…performs magic, making “it possible to instantaneously know who a user is, where they are, the device they are interacting with, and take automatic action accordingly, opening up a wide array of options In personalized control that were not previously feasible. Homeowners can trigger personalized control settings, including music presets, lighting levels, room temperature, shade positions, and more, when their smart device is within proximity of the NFC tag.”
Plus, integration is a breeze. "For existing customers, implementing airConnect requires no system reprogramming, just programming of the NFC tags, which can be done in minutes,” Fred Bargetzi, Crestron’s vice president of technology, commented. “And homeowners will be able to easily program their own settings on their smart devices."
Crestron isn’t the only automation company that has seen the potential of NFC. Control4’s VP of security and communications products, Paul Williams, said that his company has been looking at NFC as an emerging technology, as well. “We are looking for a completely automated environment,” he said.
By recognizing a specific person at a specific location in a home or space, the system then would have enough intelligence to act on it, depending on time of day, location, and who is around the person.
“That would be Nirvana for automation,” Williams stated. “Every time I enter the room, I want the music playing this genre at this volume and at this light level and temperature. To have that kind of experience for a consumer would be really cool, and that is the kind of environment that we are looking to achieve. We can do that now with button presses, but NFC is one of the technologies that we’ve looked at to accomplish this.”
For convenience sake, simply pulling out a phone and brushing it past a designated NFC tag location to trigger some automated event seems like a pretty powerful automation solution.
So, if this is so cool and affordable, why aren’t you using it? And, more importantly, why aren’t we hearing any more about it? Did NFC die before it even got started?
I reached out to both Crestron and Control4 for a conversation on their thoughts on the technology and what their plans are and their answers might interest you. In short, both companies commented that while they see the technology as having a lot of potential and that they are watching it closely, there’s one major problem: Apple doesn’t support it.
Yep, as hip and cool and affordable as NFC may be, right now the biggest automation companies are taking a wait-and-see because the majority of their customers wouldn’t be able to use it. According to Crestron’s public relations manager, Joyce Essig, “Google Play doesn’t give good information to differentiate between phones (Mobile Pro) and tablets (Mobile Pro G), but it looks like we have an overwhelming download rate a little greater than 3 to 1 ratio when it comes to iOS downloads versus Android.”
The numbers from the Control4 camp are even more heavily skewed to the all-powerful fruit. “A huge section of our customer base is very Apple centric,” Williams said, “[and] that would mean for many customers they would have to carry something in addition to their iOS device, which doesn’t seem very convenient.”
Williams speculated that if Apple were to move forward with NFC in its new iOS device, the iWatch, that would be a larger impetus for Control4 to move forward with it.
Crestron’s solutions manager residential control systems and interfaces, Delia Hansen echoed, “If it doesn’t work with Apple, it’s not supported by one of the major platforms that people are actually using. But, if Apple does include it in one of their new phones, we are right there and ready.”
I didn’t talk to the Savant folks, but, well, when your entire platform is built around Apple, I’m guessing NFC isn’t high on their to-do list either…
Even if Apple jumped on board, all isn’t flawless in NFC land. As Williams explains, “The other drawback we really see so far is in the first part of its name: near. It requires the devices being in extremely close proximity to each other and at that point you might as well press a button.”
Hansen echoed, “The speed is not as fast as some commercials would lead you to believe. And phones need to be held perfectly over the microchip for about a second, it may feel a bit awkward to the user, especially initially. And no one is going to want to get up from their couch to wave a phone over a single point of control versus pressing a button on the touchscreen in their hand.”
Still, some integrators are forging ahead, Apple or no. Nick Miller, systems engineer and programmer, onsite AV service partners, shared with me some of the cool stuff he has been implementing into his own AMX control system.
“Not only can you trigger actions on the phone—Turn WiFi on/off, Bluetooth, etc.—but you can also call URLs to run in the background,” he said. “This is how I integrated with my control system. In code, I've written a module that opens a server socket on a custom port and reads the HTTP GET headers coming in from a browser. Based on the statements in the GET header, I obtain the security clearance—using a pre-shared hexadecimal keyphrase—and perform the action requested.”
Some of the cool stuff that Miller has done with NFC includes automated entry and exit routines, such as a tag at his nightstand that turns off all systems in the house if it is after 10:00 p.m., sets house lighting to “night light” scene, triggers a “night” thermostat program, sets security system to night mode, and sets a sleep timer on the bedroom AV system. This all happens after brushing his phone against a concealed sub-$1 tag.
Miller also points out that by placing NFC tags discreetly around the home (he’s hidden them behind security keypads, decora wall plates, and on the underside of furniture), he can significantly reduce “wall acne” and give users multiple control points around the home.
One application for NFC technology I thought was really promising would be when guests visit. Beyond letting them easily jump onto your WiFi network without giving out WEP keys, it would make it easier to explain how to use the technology in a home by just saying, “tap here, here and here…”
Miller said, “Guests with phones that have NFC readers can perform the exact same actions as your own because the action instructions are written to the tag, not just stored in your own phone.”
Beyond that, imagine if you had a cheap card—like a hotel key—that you could issue your guests. This could be “loaded” with a lot of simplified automation, such as arming and disarming the security system, turning room lights on/off, and giving easy access to your home’s entertainment system. I know that when my mom comes to visit, a lot of the tech we live with and take for granted on a daily basis is a bit overwhelming, but if I could just say, “Tap this card here and this will happen for you automatically,” it would greatly simplify things for us both.
So, is NFC the coolest tech you aren’t using? Or have you started employing it on any projects? Tell me some cool uses you’ve found in the comments below.
John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.