Near Field Communications: How NFC Can Assist the Visually Impaired

Map diagram. Full text is in a box at the end of the article.

Figure 1. Examples of NFC adoption in countries around the world. (Information Source: NFCWorld.com, image created using easel.ly.com)

Have you ever cooked a meal in a microwave oven by simply tapping on your smartphone? The LG Light Wave DIOS oven does exactly this. The underlying technology that facilitates this is Near Field Communications (NFC).

To understand what an NFC-enabled smartphone can do, let us imagine a day in your life when you take a bus to work, do some grocery shopping, and visit the library. What if your smartphone could act as your bus locator, ticket, shopping assistant, credit card, and book downloader using only a few touches, taps, and voice instructions? With NFC, this is possible. All you need to trigger the functionality is to bring the NFC-enabled smartphone near an NFC tag or NFC-enabled device (see Figure 1).

This open platform technology was developed by a collaboration of Philips, Sony, and Nokia in 2004. It builds on the earlier Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology, which is a form of one-way, close-range wireless communication. NFC allows two-way communications and can operate in three different modes:

Reader/Writer – The NFC-enabled device reads or writes to a supported tag.

Peer to Peer – The NFC-enabled device exchanges data with a compatible device.

Card Emulation – The NFC-enabled device acts as a tag or contactless card for an existing NFC reader.

NFC works over a very short distance, from 1-2 inches (4-5 cm) up to 4 inches (10 cm), and many leading smartphone brands support it. The presence of NFC in a phone or tablet provides a comprehensive portable solution for multiple needs such as payment, ticketing, identification, and even shopping and entertainment (see Figure 2).

Though an emerging technology, clearly NFC’s powers of close-range object recognition (with NFC tag or device), identification, and data exchange has the potential to build amazing applications, particularly so for non-visual users. In the last few years of NFC-related trials, pilots, and services offered across 70 countries, a huge focus has been directed toward usability and accessibility of applications in mobile devices. Cutting-edge technologies are turning phones into assistive devices for the service of non-visual users across different areas.

1. Retail

In 2012, Finnish company VTT Technical Research Center built and tested a “speech-based item identification system and new ‘talking, packaging for medicine and food” based on NFC technology. When a tag on a package is touched with a mobile phone, information about the product is transferred to the phone. Once transferred, it can be read with a text-to-speech program or a screen reader.

The Casino supermarket chain in France has tested a similar application to provide product-related information through NFC tags. In stores where NFC information like this is already in use, it would allow visually impaired customers to read package labels and other product information without assistance. This would let them have a shopping experience that is similar to that of everyone else.

The BlindShopping Platform (from the Deusto Institute of Technology, Spain) aims to facilitate independent shopping without changing the general shopping environment. It would require only a minimum of additional off-the-shelf infrastructure for the stores, and allows blind customers to use their own mobile devices and assistive technology.

The Android-based mobile application would allow a user to choose an action through a gesture interface or by issuing a voice command. Drawing an “L” on the touch screen or issuing the “Location” voice command would activate the navigation system. This guides the customer through the supermarket by providing simple verbal navigation instructions via headphones. A white cane with a portable RFID reader attached to its tip and a set of road mark-like RFID tag lines distributed throughout the corridors of the supermarket would be required. After reaching the target product section, the camera phone could be pointed to an embossed QR or UPC code attached to a shelf section or product. Drawing a “P” or issuing a “Product” voice command would access the product recognition component and obtain information about a product.

List of applications (text in box at end of article)

Figure 2. Examples of NFC applications in different domains.

2. Medical

In the 2010 NFC Forum Global Competition, Dr. Miguel A. Sánchez-Vidales from Club de Innovación presented PharmaFabula, an application that uses NFC and RFID to identify medicines and report to the patient critical information about the medicine in audio format. It identifies the RFID tag inside the medication box and connects to the FabulaServer to retrieve multimedia information about the medicine.

The Diabetes Management System, designed by Seah Yew Keng and Tan Ting Feng in Philips’ Young Innovators Challenge 2005/06, contains software that helps a doctor set health safety limits. Installed on a patient’s mobile phone, the diabetic management software receives safety limits via NFC, retrieves and stores NFC-based information on RFID-labeled food packaging, medicines, NFC-interfaced pedometers, and glucose meters. It successively provides medicine reminders and advice, and facilitates information transfer on a daily basis to the patient’s personal computer, for use with data management software that provides feedback to the doctor.

3. Indoor and Outdoor Navigation

Movement in unfamiliar buildings is a challenge for the visually impaired. A cost-effective NFC indoor navigation system has been devised by Rosen Ivanov from Technical University, Gabrovo, Bulgaria, to aid blind people in traversing unknown buildings. It provides verbal commands for room-to-room navigation, verbal notification about current position, the name of a reached reference point, room dimensions, names reference points in the room, and navigational information required to reach a selected reference point. It works best with a limited number of obstacles and requires the user to have general assistance tools such as a white cane.

Other concepts include a smart bus stop where any user is able to access the best bus line information with an NFC-enabled smartphone.

4. Education

NFC is utilized in universities to assist with student or teacher identification, payment activities, resource control and management, and access to information and services. For example, Faculty Smart Posters in the University of Cordoba contain RFID tags to facilitate interaction with the environment, information access, and invoking applications or services.

You can also find examples where NFC is employed in direct learning processes. Recently, Rosen Ivanov presented a Pervasive Children’s Learning Service using NFC-enabled phones with built-in accelerometers. Trainers store voice-based information against tagged “learning objects,” which can be later accessed by children for learning shapes, numbers, and similar things. For instance, when a child brings the phone near an image of an animal and a question mark, she can hear its name and description. While these applications are based on tangible user interfaces and may not target non-visual users specifically, one can imagine that with small adaptations they would certainly benefit non-visual users. Instead of using images, actual objects with NFC tags attached could be used for teaching shape and object recognition.

The “ubiquitous library,” an endeavor of LG Sangnam Library in Seoul, Korea, employs NFC in making library experiences better for users with additional needs. Users are able to access and download Digital Talking Books (DAISY)—voice files of book contents—by touching an NFC-Bluetooth dongle on a PC to a cell phone with an NFC reader. This alternately activates Bluetooth communication, automatically logs on to the library network, or uses wired telephones.

5. Tourism

Museums are picking up fast in using NFC to enrich the experience of visitors without the necessity of a human guide. If you are planning to visit Musei Capitolini in Rome, you may expect to retrieve information about the artifacts using NFC-enabled smartphones. The National Museum of Korea has been evaluating an NFC-based guide in different languages that allowed visitors to download additional information and send comments to social media sites using Android smartphones. When properly combined with NFC-based navigational aid, these information access systems would make museum experiences more autonomous for non-visual users.

Opportunities for NFC and Accessibility

You may wonder when the benefits of NFC would reach every individual. Despite almost a decade since its inception, there are many regions where NFC applications or even the term “NFC” is not very common. In spite of possessing an NFC-enabled smartphone, consumers may not be aware of this technology. Additionally, concerns such as security or the degree of simplification provided in comparison to other modes of payments have been raised. But we have also seen that payment is just one of the many application areas of NFC.

The utilization of NFC in building effective applications for non-visual users has been mostly limited to researchers and academicians. With the initial focus being directed more towards deploying NFC in monetary transactions, using NFC to assist the visually impaired is a path less traveled by commercial application builders. However, with accessibility of applications becoming one of the major concerns for any product builder, we can hope that coming days would witness the development of more intuitive and accessible NFC-based applications on a wider scale, enhancing user experiences for all.

Figure 1 – Examples of NFC Adoption

  • NFC-based directory points launched in Southgate Centre Mall in Edmonton, Canada
  • NFC-based loyalty program introduced in Top Food and Drug in Washington
  • NFC used by Deep Springs International and Nokia Research Center to ensure clean drinking water in Haiti
  • NFC used to automate grape picking wages in Bodega Norton Winery in Argentina
  • NFC used in monitoring, reporting and log-keeping activities in two day care centers in Helsinkin
  • NFC-based ticketing plans from NFC specialist AMbiq and Russian telecom gains VimpelCom for St. Petersburg Metro in Russia
  • NFC ticketing scheme developed by Rhein-Main-Verkehrverbnd GmBH (RMV) and NFC Netstore in Frankfurt RhineMain in Germany
  • NFC-based access control system installed by Etiselat Misr., a leading mobile network operator in Egypt at Cairo Premises
  • NFC-enabled virtual stores launched by Yebhi.com at coffee shops in Delhi and Bangalore in India
  • NFC used by German messenger bag maker BagJack for product authentication in Japan.
  • NFC advertising specialist Tapit’s platform leveraged by Video game publisher Activision to promote Call of Duty: Ghosts in Australia

Figure 2 - NFC Applications

Payment

  • Google Wallet
  • P2P Payment
  • SIMPass

Travel

  • Oyster Card (Transport for London)
  • Washington DC Metro
  • DB Touch

Media and Ads

  • BBMMusic
  • Access to Music in Billboard Brasil
  • Coca-Cola’s out-of-home ads in Singapore

Social Media

  • NFriend Connector
  • Walibi Connect NFC bracelet in amusement park

Authentication

  • TapToLogin platform in Brazil
  • NFC keys in Hotel Sky Park Central in Seoul, Korea

Retail

  • Personalized shopping from Swiss online fashion store, Heidi.com
  • Vodaphone’s Virtual Shelf Shopping Wall in Dusselsorf

Games

  • McParty Run app, McDonalds’s Happy Table Initiative in Singapore

Loyalty Apps

  • ACS mCard Wallet in Singapore
  • Canadian Kiosk Digital Rewards
  • Contact Sharing
  • TapMyBiz business cards
  • Jewelery range from Amodoria in Dubai

Bhattacharya, R. (2014). Near Field Communications: How NFC Can Assist the Visually Impaired. User Experience Magazine, 14(1).
Retrieved from http://www.uxpamagazine.org/near-field-communications/

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