Thoughts on Nokia’s NFC developments

On April 15th Nokia “announced”:http://press.nokia.com/PR/200804/1209331_5.html the “6212 ‘classic’ phone”:http://europe.nokia.com/A4991363 that incorporates “Near Field Communication”:http://www.nfc-forum.org/aboutnfc/ technology. This phone is the fourth NFC-capable phone from Nokia in as many years and it is the first NFC device that supports 3G data connections.

This is a simple ‘classic’ or ‘candybar’ design like the earliest NFC models. Nokia has a history of basing its NFC devices on existing models (see the “5140 from 2004”:http://europe.nokia.com/A4144100, the “3220 from 2005”:http://europe.nokia.com/A4397259, and “6131 from 2007”:http://europe.nokia.com/A4307094). The 6212 looks like it is based on the “3120 classic”:http://www.forum.nokia.com/devices/3120_classic (announced in February 2008) with the addition of an NFC module and a slightly simplified physical design. Compared with the most recent NFC phone, “the 6131”:http://www.forum.nokia.com/devices/6131_NFC, the 6212 is slightly smaller and lighter with a smaller display at the same resolution. More notes on the design details below.

h3. The demo

This interview with Jeremy Belostock — Nokia’s NFC Sales & Marketing Director — has a number of cutaways that show some of the new NFC features in action.

There is a discussion about the path towards the mass market: whether to focus on user acceptance or building infrastructural ‘ecosystems’. NFC is discussed as being immediately suitable for developed markets where there is infrastructure already in place (such as RFID ticketing and credit card systems such as Oyster and Visa Wave). Although emerging markets are interesting, there is a particular emphasises on Western Europe and Asia in NFC transport and payment, because of the immediate benefits in these areas. The interview ends with a brief (and rather odd) discussion of the environmental benefits of NFC. I’m not sure replacing a stack of plastic cards with a mobile phone is necessarily an improvement towards sustainability (most of my credit and debit cards outlast my mobile phones by a factor of 2 or 3).

h3. Interaction design notes

Nokia is attempting to focus on features such as sharing content through touch-interactions and using tags as a way of controlling phone functions. Nokia seems to call these emerging interactions “tapping and sharing”. In the demo we see:

* Tag access to the system functions: we see a tag setting an alarm
* Tag access to files on the system: we see loading and playing of music files
* Peer to peer exchange of content: we see the ‘sharing’ of files

The specifications also note that it’s possible to “_share business cards, bookmarks, calendar notes, images, profiles, and more_” so there is clearly a deeper integration between the Series 40 system and the NFC functions here than with earlier devices (we “called for this”:http://www.elasticspace.com/2005/12/nokia-3220-nfc in 2005 when we had the first look at the 3220). What is not shown is the before/after interactions that are required to set up these sharing actions. How do I set up the transfer? What happens if we simply touch phones together? What are the default events? Where and how are these actions phrased within the menu system? Without seeing these we cannot yet assess the quality of these new NFC interactions.

Touch-based interactions are super-simple, orders of magnitude less button clicks and less security hassles than a technology like Bluetooth. This simplicity stems from the physical proximity required when interacting with tiny RFID fields. The demo shows NFC pairing between two devices working in various physical ways: two phones are tapped _side to side_, _face to face_ and _face to back_. Previously these interactions were imagined to work “back to back”:http://flickr.com/photos/timo/1599953882/ but since RFID works through electromagnetic induction, which creates a field that encompasses both sides of the antenna, other physical gestures are possible.

Discrete interaction points versus a phone surrounded by an interaction \'aura\'

When the NFC chip is given enough power and when the interaction involves _two readers_ rather than a _reader powering a passive tag_, phone-to-phone interactions will work in many configurations around the device. Although this seems to be a technical reality, I wonder if it makes sense to visualise and explain NFC in this way? Should there be an _active point of connection_ on the phone that is more like a button rather than an _active aura_ surrounding the entire phone? There is an interesting study to be created here about the user’s mental models formed by these subtly different interaction types. More on touch-interaction affordances later.

This launch is not just about the NFC phone, but points towards a range of NFC appliances: “_pairing with a Bluetooth NFC-enabled device, like the new NFC variant of the Nokia “BH-210″:http://europe.nokia.com/bh-210 headset, happens with just one touch_”.

At first glance this suggests that new Nokia accessories may have embedded NFC tags, but it seems that “_the Bluetooth Headset BH-210 sales package includes a pairing tag that has BH-210 address information in it. Pair the device and headset conveniently by tapping the tag with the device._” When suitable Mifare tags are available down to about “10mm”:http://www.lux-ident.com/en/products/transponders in diameter, why not embed the pairing tag inside the device itself? Perhaps the fear is that pranksters could sneak up to unsuspecting bluetooth-headset-wearing businesspeople and pair with their devices through a sneaky swipe…

Nonetheless, this points in some interesting directions, towards interfaces and control for all sorts of consumer devices. It highlights the possibility of the mobile phone as a _ubiquitous controller_ where it interacts with a multitude of inputs and outputs from games controllers and sensors to printers and screens, and then perhaps a whole host of other devices that require a rich interface but don’t have the physical form or price range to justify one. For more on this see our thoughts on the “universal controller”:http://www.nearfield.org/2007/06/the-universal-controller and “this research paper”:http://www.vs.inf.ethz.ch/publ/papers/rodunerc-MIRW06.pdf by Christof Roduner.

The phone is packaged with three tags, one of which is a ‘tutorial’ tag that teaches the use of NFC with on-screen tutorials. This learning mode seems to include lots of animations where phones and tags are brought into contact with each other, perhaps the least complicated part of NFC interactions. Without seeing it for ourselves its difficult to say, but the tutorials could perhaps be more useful for explaining the possibilities inherent in putting URLs, phone numbers, etc. onto tags.

h3. Physical design notes

If we are expected to regularly touch our phones against grubby payment terminals, “subway gates”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/touchinterface/ and public advertising, the surfaces and materials both on the phone and in the world must encourage this touching action. A robust and rugged shell is essential.

From the very first mobile phones that could be “operated with one hand (The book ‘Mobile usability’ has a number of case studies on the history of the first Nokia mobile designs, including finding out how one might make a phone call while on the bus with heavy shopping)”:http://www.amazon.com/Mobile-Usability-Nokia-Changed-Phone/dp/0071385142, Nokia has traditionally been good at creating robust, over-engineered devices that play well in the messy, physical world. The challenge with NFC is to create natural, basic touch interactions through material, ergonomic or other affordances. What are the physical affordances that would encourage — as “Dourish puts it (and Matt Jones sums up expertly)”:http://www.blackbeltjones.com/work/2007/11/15/lost-futures-unconscious-gestures/ — _’interacting in the world, participating in it and acting through it, in the absorbed and unreflective manner of normal experience.’_? So beyond ruggedness and a degree of scratch-proofing, what is necessary for these touch-interaction affordances?

The first consideration is the placement of the reader. The above image is a quick excercise imagining where readers might be placed on various phone models. The 5140 RFID kit and the 3220 NFC shell had a ‘classic’ or ‘candybar’ form that meant that the NFC reader was placed on the “lower back”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/timo/226958386/ of the device. Apparently this was to separate the various radio antennae (GSM, Bluetooth, etc.) from the RFID antenna, but all of our experiments showed that this was confusing to users. The 6131 solved this by placing the NFC reader at the top of the flip-up screen, away from the other antennae at the hinge.

Somehow the NFC reader in the 6212 is at the top of the device. This is a very good place to have an ‘active area’, it’s outside of the natural hand-grip, and its the part of the phone that most often _faces the world_, encouraging intuitive pointing and selecting gestures. With this placement the phone becomes a kind of ‘wand’, that perhaps draws on “the metaphor of magic (Mike Kuniavsky’s exploration of magic metaphors in ubiquitous computing)”:http://www.orangecone.com/ambidextrous_i6p36_37.pdf in ubiquitous computing. Whatever our thoughts on magic in interaction design, there is no doubt that this gesture is culturally significant and is likely to be a useful model.

More practically, the 6212 features a camera lens in roughly the same position as the reader. This combined with the perforated loudspeaker work against the idea of a robust active area. This is clearly a tradeoff, will scratches and grit getting into these delicate areas hinder touch-based interactions, and will keeping the phone pristine in general be a problem? Would a shiny iPhone ever be suitable for touch-based interactions?

The second consideration is signs and symbols. There was a time when Nokia thought it necessary to indicate the active area of NFC phones with a visual icon, starting with two concentric rings and moving on to the ‘wireless fingerprint’:

5140i + RFID

But the 6131 and 6212 have no visible indication whatsoever that they offer any sort of NFC functionality. The clear plastic film that protects the 6131 screen had a diagram of a “phone-tag interaction”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/timo/520270806/ but that of course gets quickly removed.

My feeling is that there should be clearer markings for the NFC active areas on these phones, even if it is a change in texture, colour or material, it seems like a functional necessity until NFC is properly accepted and understood in the mass market. It’s also a particularly easy thing to do. When music phones have “very clearly marked”:http://europe.nokia.com/5300 dedicated buttons devoted to specific media functions, why shouldn’t a significant functional and interactional surface be clearly marked on the device?

A few quick sketches using some of the icons from the “graphic language for touch”:http://www.elasticspace.com/2005/11/graphic-language-for-touch. Whether the possibilities inherent in NFC are indicated through clear affordances or explicit symbology, this is extremely important to get right.

h3. Other technicalities

The 6212 has a slightly better higher resolution camera than the 6131. It also offers a second video camera on the display side (why do they still include these, does anyone actually do video calling? Is there a secondary usage that I’m missing, YouTube?)

The press-release and demos emphasise the new level of integration between NFC and Bluetooth but “the specifications”:http://www.forum.nokia.com/devices/6212_classic don’t list “Bluetooth 2.1”:http://www.nearfield.org/2007/03/bluetooth-21-incorporating-nfc. Of course it supports the standard contactless communication API (JSR 257) so that 3rd parties like us can develop applications for NFC. We hope that it gives us more leeway than the implementation on the 6131. Includes MIDP 2.1 and a few other Java APIs.

The phone also supports the “Nokia Software Market”:http://www.symbianone.com/content/view/5119/31/ for application discovery and this might be very useful for distributing consumer-focused NFC applications.

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16 Responses to Thoughts on Nokia’s NFC developments

  1. Carlos J. Gomez de Llarena 19 May 2008 at 22:07 #

    Nice update on NFC.

    I’m curious to know if Nokia is planning on supporting more system control on their NFC handsets via tags, like on the alarm scenario? I see for instance, a future ‘instructions manual’ full of NFC tags per page with a task – so that if a user needs to set uPnP communication with a media server, they can tap the respective instruction page in the manual and the device auto-configures.

    Similar configuration, maintenance and troubleshooting needs could be solved so easily this way, and provide a big improvement on user experience.

    Do you know if they mentioned this?

  2. Timo 1 September 2008 at 21:45 #

    Hi Carlos, yes there are numerous patents on such ‘function tags’, one from Sony Ericsson I think. It seems natural that tags should offer quick access to such obscure and deep features in the right context…

  3. Dan W 27 October 2008 at 22:04 #

    Thanks for the great overview of this new NFC phone.

    Re: the front facing camera, I’ve only seen one compelling sue case for this. Mobile Karaoke, a project by students at NYU’s ITP, shows lyrics on screen to sing along to whilst the camera films you. It then lets you upload the video of you singing at the phone to youtube for sharing with friends.

  4. Babatunde Adeyemi 8 November 2008 at 11:28 #

    I’ve being using a Nokia 3220 for over two fews now but never knew that there was a way it could be made NFC-capable. I’ve known about NFC for quite some time now, but never knew that my device was capable of communicating via NFC.

    Thanks for sharing.

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