The Future Is Near

What do movies, ballgames, and operas have in common? If you want to watch them in person you have to stand in line to purchase your tickets or print them out online. Then you have to queue up again at the event to hand over your paper slips. Soon there will be no reason to perpetuate this quaint routine. With near field communication (NFC) you tap your mobile phone against a designated point or tag to process your request: info, seat choice, or payment.

NFC, in other words, proposes to transform customer service into software. If the powers that be and wanna-be have their way we soon may be the flesh-and-bone equivalents of cars zooming through the toll booth with the FastPass on our dashboards.

Wireless communication between devices is nothing new, but unlike a Bluetooth connection, your mobile and the other device don’t have to be programmed to work together; they can simply touch to establish a connection. Just tap your mobile to a pay station employing something like MasterCard’s PayPass program or Visa’s payWave and off you go. If your phone isn’t NFC-enabled you can attach a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag to its back to perform the same magic.

Corporations and governments will be able to track our movements and spending habits accordingly. Which may seem kind of creepy, but should add to efficiencies and better allocate resources. For instance, traffic congestion will ease and municipal coffers will fatten when people pay to drive within a defined area; the City of London has done this successfully for many years. Don’t want to pay? Go another route or take public transport. And instead of feeding a parking meter with coins, you’ll simply tap it with your phone. The information that the space is occupied would then be transmitted to a central server; that database could be accessed by services (apps) letting drivers know where empty spaces exist.

NFC is the leading technology for paying via mobile. Such payments will reach $264.8 billion by the year 2015, according to a recent report, and are especially popular in densely populated Asian Pacific nations, followed by Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa – in other words, the more “under-banked” areas of the world. There are some four billion mobile phone users worldwide, and 1.6 billion bank accounts. You do the math: Mobile payments have huge potential as the gap between the two numbers narrows, and the First World catches up the the Third.

NFC and electronic wallets won’t be ubiquitous of course until most merchants, airlines, buses, train operators, hotels, and entertainment venues adopt the technology. But that day is coming. The biggest mobile carriers and manufacturers support NFC and are pushing retailers to join them in a technology that has been around for years without getting traction – before the advent of mobile smartphones made it, well, smart. “Looks like the technology is getting moving,” says Gerald Madlmayr, an NFC expert in Vienna. “Finally.”

As for all those ticket takers, you’ll have to look for human interaction somewhere else. Zoom, zoom.

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