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Apple & The Magic of NFC

on Monday, Sep. 8th

The speculation engines have been set to maximum across the tech Internet as all eyes turn towards the Flint Center for the Performing Arts in Cupertino, where Apple will make what everyone assumes will be an historic product announcement.

Historic because this is the same theatre where the original Mac itself was unveiled back in 1984, and the company has built a large temporary structure next door to the venue for the event.

The assumption on everyone’s lips is that Apple will unveil both a new iPhone and the long rumored “iWatch,” both of which are said to use Near Field Communication technology, or NFC. The killer app for NFC? Mobile payments, specifically frictionless point of sale transactions.

While payments have gotten all of the ink, that’s just one of the magical uses of NFC. We could be in store for a lot more surprises, starting with toys.

While you were sleeping, we entered the age of intelligent toys. It started with Activison’s Skylanders and was cemented as a product category last holiday with Disney Infinity. Both of these product lines tie video game content to small figurines embedded with digital content.

The data is read by a dedicated base station, which is sold with the game. Figures are sold separately, and they add the represented character to the game.

Skylanders relies on RFID (radio frequency identification) tags to power its system. Just a few weeks ago, Activision announced that it would be releasing an iPad version of the game this holiday season, complete with a base station. This is a major coup for Apple, as the core Skylanders game has been limited to consoles and desktop computers so far even as the iPad has become a major game platform.

The great thing for Activision is that the core of the product line — the figures — are platform agnostic. A dragon figure will work with Xbox, Playstation, Wii or iPad now.

Disney Infinity uses the same business model, but its figures use NFC to transfer data. Which means that you wouldn’t necessarily need a base station to connect the figures to an iOS version of the game.

There’s still a financial incentive for the game makers to requiring base stations, of course, but technical limitations are slipping away and the lowered barrier to entry might be incentive enough for one of the game makers, or an upstart, to give a base station free model a try.

Physical objects that function as the keys to content are not limited to toys. Consider that a generation is being raised on the idea that the two go hand in hand. Disney Infinity gains Marvel characters this year, and the makers have strongly hinted that Star Wars will be up next year. What other digital/physical hybrids are dancing through marketing departments’ heads?

Flash back with us to Sundance 2011, where transmedia pioneer Lance Weiler ran Pandemic 1.0: a horror story that mixed film, physical installations, and NFC enabled phones. Special posters were made for the experience that used NFC tags. Each poster featured the image of a sleeping person. When the NFC enabled phone was held over the image’s eyes, the eyes appeared to “open” thanks to the phone.

At the time the creators of the experience, Vectorform, were very bullish on NFC. The phones used were early Google Nexus devices, and Android has continued to support NFC without the tech fully taking off.

Assuming that the rumors are correct—always a dangerous prospect—the biggest question I have is what becomes of Apple’s iBeacon initiative, which uses low energy Bluetooth signals for location based effects. Does that go away? Do the beacons get worked into an NFC connected system?

In the end consumers will only care that these systems “just work” and that their data is secure. Getting to that point, however, means having a system of standards in place that retailers, manufacturers and entertainment companies can navigate without piling on a ton of fresh overhead.

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