How to nerd out with NFC tags

NFC tags aren't mainstream, but they can be really fun.

Let's not kid ourselves: NFC tags are not going mainstream.

Near Field Communication itself, the tap-your-phone-here technology perhaps leveraged by an upcoming mobile payments system from Apple, or by the ever-ambitious Google Wallet system, may catch on. But tapping your phone against a sticker you placed, and programming your phone to respond in just the right way to that sticker? It is utterly over-involved, and there is not yet one great gateway app or clear purpose for NFC; it is trickery for trickery's sake.

With that out of the way, let me say that I bought my first batch of NFC tags this week. And, boy, am I enjoying setting up all these little tricks. Here is how I dug in.

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The remains of my NFC tag binge.

Step 1: Have a phone or tablet with NFC

I'm toting an HTC One (the 2013 "M7" model), which has NFC built in. Most of the "flagship" Android phones issued these days have NFC sensors built in: Samsung's Galaxy S3/S4/S5 phones, Motorola's Moto X (but not the cost-cutting Moto G), the Nexus 4, Nexus 5, and Nexus 10. The easiest way to determine if a phone has an NFC chip built in is to look up that phone on Wikipedia and search the page (Control or Command + F) for "NFC," or searching Google for the phone name and "specs."

While you're searching Google, look for any posts or stories about NFC quirks with your phone. NFC seems to be a somewhat contested and varied specification. The Nexus 4 and 10, for example, are incompatible with the most popular NFC tag.

Step 2: Get some tags

I was initially intimidated by that variety of NFC tags one finds in online stores and mentioned in phone reviews. One of the apps I was playing with had a built-in NFC tag store, but I went the Amazon route. I searched NFC tags in cell phones & accessories, and then I sorted by average customer review.

I found a set of 10 (plus a bonus keytag) that seemed about right: 99 cents-ish a tag, I could live with, and waterproof was something I liked, because I might stick one to my bike, or outside my office.

Would it work with my phone? Would it work well with my phone? The best thing to do is search the reviews for your specific setup. I found out that these tags work great with the HTC One, as long as you remember that the NFC reader is right behind the camera.

Step 3: Get an app that works with NFC

There are lots and lots and lots of NFC-related apps for Android, and likely quite a few when/if iPhones pick up the NFC cause (Some Windows Phones are rocking a somewhat limited NFC capability).

I dug into NFC because I noticed it was keenly supported by the makers of Trigger, a kind of "do this when that happens" app for Android. Trigger can natively write its instructions to NFC tags, and has a kind of side app to write, erase, copy, and set up NFC tags: Tagstand Writer.

But there are many options out there. NFC TagWriter by NXP is a meaty tag control tool. And Tasker, perhaps the most powerful Android automation engine around, has lots of NFC-related controls and activators.

But I recommend Trigger for anyone who's messing about with NFC for the first time. It makes it very easy to setup the "and then do this" part of NFC automation.

Step 4: Make your phone do cool things with NFC

There are some standard actions and information that NFC tags can convey to a phone when tapped: a website URL, contact details, a phone number or email address, even a Foursquare check-in link. But those make NFC tags into something just slightly more cool than a QR code. Let's get nerdy.

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Using NFC as a trigger in Trigger

Using Trigger for Android, you can write to and set up an NFC tag as a Trigger: tap your phone against that tag, and then X happens. What can "X" be? Let me give you some of my examples:

  • A tag near the spot where I rest my phone in my car makes my phone turn up the ringer/notification volume (I keep my phone on vibrate or silent otherwise), starts the "Driving Agent" in the Agent app that reads my texts out loud to me and asks if I want to respond, and disconnects me for 1 minute from Wi-Fi (so that I don't have a tenuous driveway connection that makes Google Maps angry). Tap that tag again, and everything is back to non-driving mode.
  • A tag on my bicycle sets all my ringers to vibrate, notes on my calendar that I started biking (a guilt/fitness thing), and starts the RunKeeper app that I use to track my speeds and distances.
  • A tag inside my kitchen cabinet, where I keep the coffee gear, starts a timer on my phone for the maximum amount I like to brew my fancy-pants Chemex coffee (this is ridiculous, but you can set timer tags elsewhere for common tasks).
  • A tag inside my bedside table sets an alarm for the next morning at my usual wakeup time, and also turns notification volume off and turns off data connections until after I'm actually up and awake the next day.
  • A little tag on the coat rack at the office checks anyone who taps it into Foursquare. It's goofy, but also a conversation starter.
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My "biking" setup in Trigger

That keychain tag that came with the set? I have yet to figure out what to do with that, at least when attached to an actual key set. NFC tags only activate when the screen is turned on (at least on my HTC One), so accidental triggers wouldn't be common. Still, I haven't figured out the thing I would want my phone to do most often, when I intentionally knock it against my keys.

Got any ideas for a keychain tag? Got your own nerdy/amazing/completely singular uses for NFC tags? Tell me on Twitter, or in the comments here.

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