Retro-fitting mobile phones with RFID

The promise of NFC is about easily using mobile phones as a part of daily life: ticketing, paying with a credit card, opening doors, sharing, printing and downloading in the physical world. But until NFC technology is widely adopted, are there opportunities for using some of the features of RFID-interactions without the integration into the handset?

In South Korea we noticed a strong trend towards using mobile phone straps as electronic money, specifically using T-Money services to pay on public transport and to make small purchases at shops.


Almost all mobile phones offer some way of attaching straps. This is particularly important in Asia but from personal experience it is also becoming widespread everywhere. T-money is building upon this affordance and getting people to integrate the ticketing system into their daily use of the phone, as well as making a personal or even customised statement. In many ways attaching a travel card or credit card to a mobile phone makes a lot of sense: a mobile phone is part of essential daily activity that forms a key part of the three mobile essentials — the phone, keys and wallet — this is a form of casual, bottom-up convergence that works in practice.

The Octopus card in Hong Kong has gone slightly further in the RFID/mobile integration; offering Octopus Xpress-on covers for Nokia phones that are available alongside other payment products like watches and key chains:

3310 xpress on covers

“An Xpress-on cover that transforms the Nokia 3310 and 3330 mobile phones into an Octopus. The specially-designed cover comprises a full-function adult Octopus with no initial stored value or deposit. Customers can use the payment function after adding value to the Octopus in retail outlets or the Customer Service Centres at MTR or KCR Light Rail Stations.”

Two recent projects have shown the value of retro-fitting any mobile phone with RFID tags. The first is Slippery Rock University that is giving RFID tags to students to attach to their mobile phones as a mode of payment:

“The University’s 8,500 students and faculty members will each receive a passive 13.56 MHz RFID tag they can attach to their cell phones. This tag will allow them to pay for everything from laundry and copier services to movies and groceries in the surrounding town of Slippery Rock [...] “In the focus-group research, we found that students considered their cell phone a device they would always have with them, and which they expected greater use from,” Smith says. “Originally, we thought of embedding the tags in the phone, but decided to give the plastic card [the existing ID card with mag-strip and photo] and a separate chip with the intent to attach to the phone.””

More on the story here and here.

The second recent project is called Shifd which uses a mobile phone with an attached RFID to integrate some of the experiences of web-browsing with the mobile phone. “The goal of Shifd is to create a seamless transition between your computer and your mobile phone… and back again.” It uses SMS as the medium for transferring data, and the RFID tag/reader combination as a way of detecting the presence of the mobile phone and the computer. It sets up the mobile phone for accessing content when away from the PC, with RSS feeds, notes, maps, addresses and other content you have selected on the PC (a bit like Widsets).

Shifd prototype by NYTlabs

This project has clearly discovered the compelling aspect of RFID interactions: the ability to set presence, context or state through the action of touch. The services at the moment take some of the basic content types from the PC (with a lovely web interface) and make them usable on the mobile phone; the RFID interaction simply helps in this overall experience.

The first downside of using simple RFID tags as opposed to NFC is that the phone is not an RFID reader. This means there is no opportunity to read passive tags embedded in things or to create phone-to-phone connections. This also means that there is no direct interface between the phone and the tag with no opportunity for any ‘mobile wallet’ or banking applications that have screen interfaces.

But given that this is an easy hack and an inexpensive way to create new kinds of interactions, there might be a lot more of this kind of convergence. Our only advice at the moment would be to use high frequency Mifare compatible tags so that an easy transition to NFC doesn’t get ruled out in the future.

Related things:

  1. Mobile payment demo The near-future success of NFC depends on the usability of mobile payments and ticketing. As interaction designers we of course argue that the success hinges on good design of this experience and recent news......
  2. Interactions of transactions This is a design brief, one of many themes that the Touch project is investigating. It is likely that NFC has a role to play in the future of our interactions with infrastructures like......
  3. RFID in Seoul: first impressions I’m in Seoul, South Korea looking at the use of mobile technology and RFID. The first encounter with RFID came only an hour or so off the plane by the Metro ticketing machines, a......
  4. Nokia releases first mass-market NFC handset Nokia today announced the 6131 NFC phone, the first integrated NFC handset that will (operators willing) be available to the public. Previously NFC had been confined to ageing handsets like the 5140 and 3220......
  5. ‘Touch orders’ with ‘RFID dongles’ A while ago some interesting projects attached passive RFID tags to ordinary mobile phones to enable participation within RFID-based ticketing, payment or infrastructure. I wrote about this way of retro-fitting mobile phones with RFID.......

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  1. Posted 10 July 2007 at 14:35 | Permalink

    I have implemented a different type of mobile application using the same RFID toolkit as outlined in the above ‘Shifd’ project. I thought it might be of interest to some.

    My project aims to improve on the consumer experience when using mobile devices to retrieve product information whilst shopping. It therefore utilises Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology and retailer’s merchandise data to automatically identify products and retrieve information from retailers’ databases.

    Having retrieved the product description, data is pulled from multiple data sources within the internet and filtered to present the user with the most relevant information. In essence this will help bridge the gap between products contained within the physical world and data retrieved from the virtual online media.

  2. kamran bhatti
    Posted 2 August 2007 at 7:46 | Permalink


  3. Mark Chandler
    Posted 14 June 2008 at 23:10 | Permalink

    In the article “Retro-fitting mobile phones with RFID”. In the upper left quadrant of the first group of pictures is a set of mobile phone straps that look like various animals (fish, dinosaur, etc) that have what looks like to be customizable pictures for faces. My daughter is desperate to find out where to get these. Any ideas appreciated.


  4. Timo
    Posted 14 June 2008 at 23:17 | Permalink

    The straps are from South Korea, where you can get your face printed on a character at the Ssamzie market.

  5. Posted 14 August 2008 at 18:36 | Permalink

    I’m looking to use my mobile phone as my credit card. I have a Chase CC that has the “Blink” contactless debit funtion so when I pay for items at the store I just touch my card to the reader and it makes the transaction. In the card is the actual RFID chip.

    I plan on cutting out the section of the card with the chip in it and putting it inside my mobile phone (behind the battery cover) and using my phone as my payment system.

    Has anyone tried this? Or attempted this? I cant wait for the day of the “Mobile Wallet” and I know it’s coming soon…

    -Thanks, Kris
    (Financial/E-Commerce Industry)

  6. Vallari
    Posted 2 January 2010 at 9:05 | Permalink

    I have an RFID tag which I want to put inside my mobile phone,
    but reader is not detecting the tag because of the battery of mobile
    Is there a way to solve this issue.

  7. Posted 12 June 2010 at 11:48 | Permalink

    I want to launch RFID based product and solution system in India is any person interested to make some projects according to my requirement contact me

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