Can NFC be an alternative to GPS for mobile phones?

NFC, short for Near Field Communication is a technology that enables the communication between devices over a short distance (ca. 0-8 inches), using magnetic field induction. The technology is primarily aimed at usage in mobile phones.

Now why do I think this can be alternative to GPS? Because I’m a dreamer!
So here is what I was thinking:
With NFC you can transfer location coordinates from a transponder to a phone. As it works without the need for satellite reception it is perfect for urban street canyons or indoor use like subways, shopping malls, or conference centers. Yes, because of the short range there is a downside which is the need for tagging street corners or building corridors with transponders. And yes, NFC is still in its infancy. So let’s look at a field test I was able to sneak myself in – and my experiences so far.

Let me set the stage first.
My local public transportation services company is already offering a mobile phone ticketing solution – sans the need for NFC. Passengers can download an application to their mobile phones and use this to purchase paperless pay-per-ride tickets to use trains and buses. This works on almost every phone with Internet access.

Here is what you do to buy a ticket:
If you have bookmarked the application on your phone, it shouldn’t take more than 2 clicks to start it up. Another 2 clicks and you can type in the stop where you want to begin your journey. Then enter the stop’s name, which is not too trivial given many names are not included in the standard T9 dictionary. And then it’s only another six clicks before you can actually purchase the ticket.

Long story short: Not user friendly at all.
The hassle of digging for loose change is replaced by the hassle of too many clicks on your phone.

Enter NFC.
NFC is indented for mobile micro payments, e-tickets, access control and the like. No wonder a public transportation company is looking into testing it to make mobile ticketing easier. And it really does. Keep on reading to see how.

Nokia 6131 NFCSo about two weeks ago I received a Nokia 6131 NFC, provided to me at no charge by the public transportation company. As this is a field test and I’m a volunteer I can even keep the phone. (Thank you RMV!) After unpacking the phone I downloaded the software and installed it – and that was it. I was all set.

Well, not really all set, because all my contacts where still missing on the phone and I couldn’t get it synced with my Vaio at work nor with my MacBook at home. A little bit of tinkering finally resolved the issue (thank you Thierry) and I could easily transfer my address book from my Mac to the phone. Oh, I’d also like to thank Nokia for not even replying to my cry for help via their support center.
I’m sharing this hassle because you have to put yourself in the consumers’ shoes when rolling out a new technology that requires the replacement of a personal device such as a mobile phone.

Close up on mobile phone screenTicketing machine with NFC transponderBut let’s look at how NFC has changed the ticket purchasing process.
When I approach a station, I simply flip open the phone and briefly hold it to a transponder tag attached to the ticket machine or stop sign post. The phone reads the embedded information of the tag which are the stop’s name, a unique ID, and the WAP address of the station’s schedule. This triggers the ticketing application on the phone to pop open, with the name of the stop already selected. Now it’s only one more click to choose a ticket type, confirm the purchase and you’re done.
One word: Easy!

phone ticket vs. paper ticketWhat you have to know is, where I live there are no turnstiles like in New York’s Subway, London’s Tube or Paris’ Métro. You simply walk into the station, past the ticketing machines, down the stairs, and get on a train. Trams and buses don’t require you to show a valid ticket before or while you board or stamp it in the cars. It’s a very liberal system with very rare random ticket checks by teams of ticket inspectors. So the infrastructure really supports a mobile ticketing solution without the need for special changes to any hardware. Instead of a small paper ticket you simply show your digital ticket on the mobile phone to the inspectors – if you’re lucky enough to make that encounter.

But now let’s return to my question of whether NFC can be an alternative to GPS.
I think that if an NFC tag can tell my phone the name of a station and provide the URL of that station’s schedule, it might as well tell my phone the lat/long coordinates for a navigation application or simply the URL of a mapping site displaying the current location. Do you agree?

If this works NFC could be utilized for …

  • well, mapping (not navigation),
  • micro maps in shopping malls,
  • guiding folks to their seats at events (and to the rest rooms!),
  • telling you where you’ve parked your car in that monster parking garage at the airport,
  • and whatever you can dream up (let me know!).

What I don’t know is …

  • whether it’s less expensive to embed NFC into mobile phones than GPS,
  • whether NFC will establish itself and by when,
  • whether it will be adapted by location based services,
  • whether you think I’m a crazy prankster.

So let me know your thoughts.

7 thoughts on “Can NFC be an alternative to GPS for mobile phones?

  1. Yes, NFC can be a very effective and cheap location system. I know that Alexis Rondeau of Semapedia is looking into standard ways of encoding and interpreting location data on NFC tags…

  2. There are a few scenarios where you can do location sensitive apps with NFC/Touch. But that doesn’t mean that it is GPS alternative. Usage and experience for GPS and NFC are entirely different.

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