So what is it exactly? Simply put, it's a method of wireless data transfer that detects and then enables technology in close proximity to communicate without the need for an internet connection. It's easy, fast and works automagically.
The tech involved is deceptively simple. Evolved from radio frequency identification (RFID) tech, an NFC chip operates as one part of a wireless link. Once it's activated by another chip, small amounts of data between the two devices can be transferred when held a few centimeters from each other.
Near field communication is fast and easy
No pairing code is necessary to link up and because it uses chips that run on very low amounts of power (or passively, using even less), it's much more power-efficient than other wireless communication types.
At its core, NFC works to identify us by our enabled cards and devices (and by extension, our bank accounts and other personal info.)
NFC chips stocked inside credit cards for contactless payments is nothing new. But a more recent and admittedly more enticing use case for NFC is with your smartphone, which can digitize your entire wallet.
Google Wallet allows Android users to pay via NFC
Virtually every mobile OS maker has their own apps that offer unique NFC functionality. Android users have the widest variety to choose from. First off, US users can nab Google Wallet, which accesses your funds for contactless payments. Samsung Pay, which operates similarly, is on the way for Samsung phone users in US and Korea this Summer.
However, a feature that all Android owners have been able to enjoy is calledAndroid Beam. It was implemented in Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0 as a nifty, simple process that allows for the transfer of photos, contacts and directions that works by holding two phones together.
Our inaugural purchase with Apple Pay was an Apple Pie
Apple's iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus received NFC functionality, albeit with limited use so far, only for Apple Pay. It's a lot like Google Wallet, in that it's an app which gives users the ability to pay for goods and services at participating retailers. Lastly, those who prefer Microsoft's Windows Phone will be able to use Microsoft Payments when it launches likely around the launch of Windows 10.
Whichever device you have, it's likely that a local supermarket, train station, taxi or coffee shop supports contactless payments via your phone's NFC chip. Go try it out! Simply hold it close to a contactless payment terminal and instantly, like swiping a credit card, the payment will complete.
Looking toward the future, it's possible that NFC chips could be used to replace every card in your wallet. That means the unique info on your frequent shopper loyalty cards, library card, business cards and the like could be contained and transmitted simply via NFC.
The potential for NFC stretches further than commerce.
Passive NFC 'tags' are being built into posters and informational kiosks to transmit additional information similar to how scanning a QR code can trigger launching a web address, offering a discount coupon, or a map to download on your smartphone.
There's an NFC tag hiding in Google Cardboard
A clever use of an NFC tag can be found integrated into Google's do-it-yourself VR kits, Cardboard. Mounting your NFC-capable smartphone into the headset triggers the nearby tag to automatically download or launch the app.
Strangely enough, even video games and action figures are even seeing an injection of the wireless technology. Nintendo's Amiibo, Skylanders and Disney Infinity are collectible toys at heart, but under the hood, the NFC tech offers new functionality not previously seen in video games.
Waving these figurines over gaming consoles or accessories enables players to "check-in" to the game brings them to life, so to speak, which activates some unique features.
Nintendo's NFC-powered Amiibo bring new functionality to figurines
In Skylanders, these figurines can be linked up to the game to enrich the experience with these new characters to play with. Disney Infinity and Amiibo toys yield similar rewards to players and collectors. The NFC chips inside are capable enough to store user data such as experience points, progression and customized settings.
Another practical use of NFC is with Bluetooth speakers and headphones. Many devices brandish the NFC logo, which means that by holding your smartphone to the NFC-enabled device, you'll be able to connect via Bluetooth much faster than pairing devices manually.
Interested in giving NFC a shot? First, you need to find out if your device is compatible with contactless payment terminals and passive NFC tags detailed above.
The good news? The list of compatible devices is staggering and growing with time. It's safe to say, if you've purchased a smartphone in the last year or two, you should be ready to go.
Yep, the Nexus 6 is equipped with NFC
Looking forward, NFC chips will also be in more smartwatches and fitness trackers. Apple is including NFC support in its Apple Watch so that users can pay for goodies using Apple Pay with a tap of the wrist.
The Sony SmartWatch 3 is among the first smartwatches with NFC
On the Android side of things, Sony has also done the same with its Sony SmartWatch 3 wearable, which offers similar implementation using Android Wear, plus a few fun features, like tapping a phone to the watch to power it on.
The magic of NFC occurs in the free and open air, so it's easy to get wrapped up in the idea that your data can be nabbed by anyone who tries to intercept. It can really happen, but it doesn't have to happen to you.
Let's first tackle this scary issue with the point that NFC chips in your cards or phones can't be skimmed unless they are within mere centimeters of a potential thief. That's just the way the technology works. I don't know about you, but there aren't that many things that get close to me.
Hmm ... which card to use?
There are skeezers out there who try to ruin it for everyone with NFC skimming apps that rip your personal information, including your address and account details. But they are having an increasingly tough time with that goal, as apps like Apple Pay and Google Wallet are implementing some clever safeguards to protect users.
According to Apple, their commerce app, Apple Pay, stores payment information on the device exclusively, encrypting the card information only for use by the merchant and payment network for verification. The information does not live in the cloud, nor does it live in the iOS source code. Lose your phone? You can erase your precious financial deets manually using the "Find my iPhone" feature.
Google utilizes SSL (secure socket layer) technology to protect your financial information on Google Wallet. They recommend a more practical approach in making sure your details stay safe: use a passcode on your phone. Additionally, on Google's Wallet FAQ, it states that the NFC antennae in Android phones is only activated when the screen is both on and unlocked.
If you're using a credit or debit card with NFC capabilities, your best bet for protecting yourself is by getting a sleeve to go over your card. These deflect radio frequencies to attracting the attention of your card's NFC chip. If you're short on cash, word is Altoid tins apparently do the job on the cheap. It'll also leave your cards smelling fresh, but use this option as a last resort.
Let us know if you have any other tips for staying secure with an NFC-enabled device, or on a lighter note, any other fun uses of NFC we haven't mentioned.