MobiSocial taps smart phone technology

Feb. 4, 2011, 2:19 a.m.

A team of researchers at the Stanford Mobile and Social Computing Research Group is studying applications of a groundbreaking technology that could change the way people use their phones. This technology, called Near Field Communication (NFC), allows devices to interact in a new way and is expected to become standard in smart phones within the next five years.

NFC works by transmitting shortwave radio signals. Its potential uses include the transfer of files, applications and information, all through the simple touch of a cell phone to another device.

MobiSocial taps smart phone technology
(JAMES BUI/The Stanford Daily)

Nokia and payWave credit cards also implemented similar technology. Ben Dodson, a graduate student in computer science and a member of the research team, believes that the implementation of NFC will be driven by the payment option it offers.

“We expect it to be as standard of a feature as Bluetooth became,” Dodson said. “People will want to use phones to make payments, so it could become a new revenue stream for Google and Verizon to start making transaction fees for every time you go to make a payment with your phone.”

The NFC research currently conducted at the Stanford MobiSocial Research Laboratory focuses on how applications can take advantage of NFC as opposed to studying the payment method.

“What really excites us is that you get two objects really close together, and that in itself is enough to make them interact,” said Dodson. “You don’t have to press buttons. You don’t have to launch an app even. You just get them close together and something happens.”

Of course, NFC isn’t foolproof yet. Such an increase in mobility and openness comes with an expected amount of concern about privacy and security. Although the maximum transmission distance for most devices is about eight centimeters, the addition of a sufficiently strong antenna could enable interference, a type of eavesdropping on information transmissions.

However, users would also have the option of disabling NFC in their phones, just as Bluetooth can be turned off. Scott Klemmer, assistant professor of computer science, who researches barcodes and interface design, voiced a possible concern with the accelerated movement towards digital technology.

“When we start to put information digitally, it raises the question of how long that information is going to be accessible by the outside world,” Klemmer said. “So for transient information, these technologies are really valuable. But when you’re banking on that information being there centuries from now, it’s a more challenging proposition.”

Research in NFC technology is only a portion of a much larger project that MobiSocial is pursuing. The lab, in fact, received a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation to be used over five years.

Monica Lam, professor of computer science and a faculty director for the project, remarked on the importance universities play in creating a programmable and accessible Internet.

“A lot of companies are focusing on proprietary software,” Lam said. “They like to lock people in on their own proprietary systems. And that’s the reason why our project is focused on breaking down the barriers to openness.”

However, companies sometimes collaborate with researchers in the MobiSocial laboratory. This collaboration aims to increase the efficiency with which the NFC technology will be incorporated into products.

The effect NFC technology may have on the smart phone market is still unclear. The only phone with NFC technology currently on the market is the Google Nexus S. Although there is some speculation that NFC will be standard in the next iPhone, it is unconfirmed.

“We know that NFC is going to be very new,” Lam said. “And we want to be there and help create open methods.”

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