NFC is Your Home's New (Very Smart) Best Friend

Written by Eric Mack
Updated July 12, 2016
woman holding smart phone to communicate with another electronic device

Use NFC to pay for retail services, and use embedded tags on NFC-enabled devices to make your home smarter.

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In the sports world, NFC is a football conference. But in the tech world, NFC stands for Near Field Communications, most notably known for allowing you to pay with the tap of your phone. 

With a little effort, creativity and an Android device (sorry iPhone users, Apple locked your NFC chip to work with Apple Pay only), NFC also offers the power to make your home and life smarter.

What is NFC?

As the name implies, NFC is a communication protocol that relies on an electromagnetic field and allows devices to communicate when they’re placed within about 2 inches of each other. NFC-enabled devices can also read data from tiny and inexpensive "tags" that do not require their own power source and can be embedded in everything from stickers to 3D-printed rings.

How can NFC tags help me?

NFC tags are the key to adding a little DIY automation to your day. Tags provide shortcuts tied into some sort of digital platform. They do this by triggering your NFC-enabled phone or device to perform pre-programmed tasks whenever that device is tapped to the tag.

For example, you could use a pre-programmed tag stuck to the back of a smartphone dock on the dashboard of your car. Each time you get behind the wheel and put your phone in the dock, it will read that tag, which gives the phone the command to turn off Wi-Fi, turn on Bluetooth, connect to your car's audio system and fire up Spotify.

Pros and Cons of NFC

NFC tags offer a few advantages over competing technologies like Bluetooth in that they don't need a power source and can be purchased in easy-to-program bunches from Amazon.

Some people may be put off by the fact that NFC tags do require a bit of setup. Some more expensive tags come with a companion app which makes them a little easier to program, but generic tags can be easily programmed with cheap or free apps like NFC Tools. You can also find a handy primer on programming NFC tags here to get you started.

Like most other tools for the do-it-yourselfer, the potential uses for NFC are really limited only by your own imagination. Here are four ways to get started on streamlining your life and home with some simple tags.

1. Make your smartphone even smarter

The simplest way to get started with NFC tags is to use them to control and adjust your phone automatically, depending on the different rooms or environments that you pass through during your day. 

How to do it: Tags could be used to turn off your alarm and turn on notifications when you get out of bed each morning or to mute your ringer and connect to Wi-Fi when you arrive at the office. You might also use a tag attached to your backpack that you tap each time you head into the subway or a rural area to easily switch into airplane mode to save on battery life. If you want to get really fancy, you can embed NFC tags in 3D-printed rings.

Many phones already allow you to make these adjustments by recognizing your location, but by programming your own tags, you are in full control and can customize your own level of automation to a far greater degree.

2. A Smarter Home with NFC and IFTTT

Using NFC tags to control your phone is simple enough, but the real power comes when you connect to a whole array of other devices or appliances around the home via a platform like IFTTT (which stands for "If this, then that"). 

IFTTT's website and app can be used as a bridge between your Android phone and the much wider Internet of Things. The connections are vast and include: Nest, Amazon Echo, Withings products, connected car platforms like Automatic and Dash, numerous other smart home platforms, fitness tracking wearables, connected security systems and other DIY electronic systems like Maker, PebbleBee or LittleBits.

woman holding smart phone to communicate with stereo sound

How to do it: IFTTT allows you to create "recipes" that are basically commands that it sends to whatever platforms you have connected to it when a certain trigger occurs (if this, then that) and it can also be set to recognize tapping your phone to a pre-programmed NFC tag as the trigger. You can find a tutorial walking you through the whole process of setting up both IFTTT recipes and the NFC tags to trigger them.

Once you're all set up, you could easily walk into your home, wave your phone past a tag or series of tags near the door and watch your lights instantly turn on, feel your air conditioning fire up and hear some nice mood music begin to ring out from your speakers in the living room. And that's just the simple stuff, really. With enough creativity and ingenuity, you could run a factory or assembly line operated off of NFC tags. 

If all of this sounds a little too involved for you, there are pre-packaged options from companies like Loxone that come with an app that makes it easy to control smart home devices without having to fiddle with IFTTT recipes or programming your own tags.

3. Simple security

With NFC becoming a go-to technology for payments, it only makes sense that it could be used to secure your home as well as your purchases. 

man holding key fob to communicate with house alarm

How to do it: True DIY fanatics might connect a garage door opener or other locks and security systems to an Arduino and NFC-powered system. Simply wave your device in front of the pre-programmed NFC tag to open or unlock your doors.

Once again, if that's too much hacking and DIY, there are also off-the-shelf options like Lockitron's $99 smart lock with NFC capability.

4. Safer sharing

You use a long string of characters for your Wi-Fi password because you want to protect yourself. But it can be a pain to track down that Post-It note that you scribbled it down on when a guest shows up and wants to get online. Or if you're entertaining a group of distant acquaintances at your house, do you really want to give a bunch of strangers access to your network password? NFC tags are the answer.

How to do it: Program a tag to pass along access to your Wi-Fi network to any device that taps it without needing to reveal your password. There are even Android apps like InstaWifi that are designed to program NFC tags specifically for this purpose. 

NFC has been the next big thing in the world of payments for some time now, and with the growing acceptance of Apple Pay, Android Pay and Samsung Pay, it seems as though it's finally realizing its potential. But the technology can also do much, much more to make our lives efficient. Whether it becomes widely used for these purposes depends on thoughtful DIYers like you to show off everything NFC can do.

Eric Mack is a veteran tech journalist who has been writing about technology since the 1990s. He is a current contributor to CNET, Forbes, Inc. and Gizmag and has also contributed to NPR, Wired, the New York Times and many others over the years. He's still trying to figure out how to program an NFC tag to exercise for him. 

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