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What You Need to Know About The Tactile Web

It’s a user-directed integration of technology into life

Many people have heard the term RFID, “radio frequency identifier,” a technology pioneered in the 1980s for creating tracking chips that needn’t be powered to work. This technology has improved quite a bit over the years. The technology area in which RFID originated is called NFC, for “Near-Field Communication.”

In themselves, NFC chips are small and unpowered, but they can receive power from nearby devices, thus enabling them to communicate. The amount of work that modern NFC chips can do is amazing. The NXP firm, for instance, manufactures chips that can do full-blown data encryption and signing.

These chips are not only powerful, they are also very inexpensive. NFC tags are available as label stickers at prices as low as 10 cents each.

Since 2006, smartphone developers have increasingly been adding NFC capabilities to their devices. The first NFC-capable smartphone was the Nokia 6131. However, adoption was pretty slow at first.

For some time, Android has been the leader in NFC technology. In 2011, some high-end Android phones, starting with the Google Nexus S, were capable of NFC scanning in the background. That is, anytime the phone is unlocked, it can read and respond to NFC tags automatically. You don’t need to have an app open if the NFC tag encodes a URL; you don’t even need to have an app installed. Just bringing your phone near an NFC tag will trigger the phone to bring you to an app or URL that has been given the details from the tag.

Apple released its first NFC-capable phones in 2014 with the iPhone 6. However, these devices could only use NFC for one particular use case—paying with Apple Pay. Starting with iOS 11, Apple enabled general NFC reading for phone apps for users with an iPhone 7 or later. In 2018, Apple released the iPhone XS. This phone, coupled with the simultaneous release of iOS 12, is the first iPhone model to support “background tag reading,” which is the equivalent to what Android has been doing.

While NFC tags support a variety of technologies, the most commonly used technology is known as an NDEF tag. NDEF is a standard term for “NFC Data Exchange Format.” It allows users to encode a variety of data types onto their tags. The most widely-used data format is the standard URL. So, if you background-scan an NFC tag with an NDEF-coded URL, it will take you to the website, or to the app that is registered with that URL.

These advances lead to the “tactile web.” Instead of having to manually install apps, launch apps, search for websites, etc., we can now simply touch our phone to things with NFC-compatible chips/stickers, and the phone will automatically carry out the job.

Imagine, for instance, if you touched your phone to your dishwasher and a repair manual appeared. Or if you touched your phone to a recipe on a recipe book, and a video popped up of the person actually making the recipe. This process doesn’t require typing in URLs, installing apps, or anything. It is just touching your phone to a sticker, and letting the magic happen.

Additionally, you can code your own NFC tags as well—a number of apps allow you to do so. So, rather than trying to find your fitness app at the beginning of a run, you could just tap your phone on a sticker on your running shoes to begin. For any task for which the app or website you want is based on your location, you can code an NFC tag to enable you to “tap to start.”

This technology will allow for a more seamless integration of digital and real life. Rather than continually attempting to reach online services, we can simply use our phones as a magic wand—touch it and watch the magic happen.

Also by Jonathan Bartlett: Will the COVID-19 pandemic promote mass automation? Caution! Robots don’t file for benefits but that’s not all we need to know about them

Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

What You Need to Know About The Tactile Web