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Nov 18, 2021

NFC Forum’s Wayfinder Mark System Improves NFC User Experience

In a blog article published in 2019, I described a few experiments that tested the level of NFC user experience. One of the conclusions was that users have issues with connecting the NFC tag and the reader device, due to a lack of detailed knowledge of the antenna locations. I noted that: “NFC forum should recommend system integrators and manufacturers to indicate clearly where the tag is placed, and where the phone´s antenna is located. “

Now NFC forum has published the Wayfinding Mark System. The marks are used for showing users the NFC tag placements, where the reading device antenna is, and whether the NFC functionality is used for charging or just for communication.

Read the detailed instructions and sign the trademark license agreement at the NFC forum website.

  • The Wayfinding Mark is free to use.
  • Just the license agreement needs to be signed.
  • And obviously, the mark should be used as intended.

Wayfinding Mark Variations

There are 4 variations of the mark.

Image source: https://nfc-forum.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Wayfinding-Mark-Guidelines.pdf

The default mark is “directional”. It can be used on tags and devices. It guides users to find the exact position of the NFC tag and antenna.

A “simplified” version can be used when users are expected to be more familiar with the NFC use case.

Many NFC devices have also the possibility to charge wirelessly via the NFC interface. This is indicated by a charging variation of the Wayfinding Mark. The “charging” mark should only be used when charging is possible.

NFC Powered Marketing

Another blog I wrote in 2019 presents an example of how NFC can support effective marketing and storytelling.

The Wayfinding Mark is the correct way to indicate the tapping position on a packaging or other material.

The Wayfinding Mark is royalty-free and easy to use. The more it is used by NFC device manufacturers and system providers, the more aware consumers will be about the mark and its meaning. And that will significantly improve the user experience of all the NFC systems.

Please, take the Wayfinding Mark into use.

Apr 17, 2020

Triple Your NFC Label Production Capacity

中文版 Chinese version

In a recently published success story, Mr. Kevin Kuo, Technical Manager of a Taiwanese RAIN RFID and NFC tag manufacturer SAG discussed the improvements they have seen in production after taking the Voyantic Tagsurance HF system into use. He mentioned the improved capability to detect tags that are not working as specified, and also 200% increased production capacity. In this article, I explain more in detail some background features enabling the improvements.

“Tagsurance HF testing speed is much faster than normal commercial HF reader. The UPH has been increased over 200% after Tagsurance HF replaced the commercial reader in our converting line. Tagsurance HF can sort out those weak performance tags that a normal reader is unable to achieve. More importantly, Tagsurance can also record each tag minimum turn-on power, which is very useful information for our engineers to adjust the machine manufacturing parameters and to enhance the tag quality control.”, said Mr. Kevin Kuo, SAG Technical Manager. Let’s look at the two main improvements in detail.

200% increase in NFC label tag production capacity after installing Tagsurance HF

This amazing capacity increase was achieved entirely without adding new machinery. The capacity increase has its’ roots in the Tagsurance system. Tagsurance is an integrated real-time system, whereas typical NFC readers are combinations of a reader, computer, and reader software, or at least combinations of integrated reader + computer and software. These divided systems spend some time in moving data between the system parts. With Tagsurance, there is no time wasted on any overhead activities, and the data handling is optimized.

                                       

NFC communication standards are powerful and enable a large number of different use cases. The downside is that in typical use cases, the communication time is not minimized. There is a lot of communication flowing between the tag and reader, even in a simple read. The Tagsurance system is purpose-built for high-speed production quality testing. Some of the typical reader functionalities are left out, and focus is on a higher speed.

The difference is clearly visible when communication of Tagsurance HF and an NFC tag is compared to communication between an NFC reader (smartphone) and a tag. In the below picture, the communication is recorded with Voyantic Protocol Analyzer hardware and downconverter. The time Voyantic Tagsurance needs for checking the tag quality is a fraction of the time a typical reader needs when reading the NFC tag.

Recordings of the reader to tag communication between Tagsurance and an NFC tag; and a reader and a tag. Tagsurance HF needs a fraction of a time compared to a typical reader.

Replacing NFC reader with Tagsurace increases production capacity because Tagsurance HF:

  • is an optimized real-time device
  • does not need overhead time for moving data between system parts
  • is purpose-built for high-speed quality testing
  • uses NFC protocols efficiently for quality testing

-> 200% production capacity increase

Sort Out Tags With Weak Performance

Being a quality test device, the Tagsurance HF is capable of accurately sorting out good tags from non-performing ones. It is more interesting to look at why a regular NFC reader cannot do the sorting as well.

It starts with NFC tag performance. NFC tags are designed for different uses and are thus tuned differently, that is: the frequency where the tag needs the least amount of power is different. This frequency shifts to the 13.56 MHz HF RFID frequency only when the tag is in its typical use.

In the production line, the tag is not in its typical use environment, but the reader is still limited to operate on the 13.56 MHz. As a result, the reader only shows if the tag operates with 13.56 MHz in the manufacturing line. And how the tag works with a reader on the manufacturing line may be completely different from – let’s say someone is having the label glued behind a glass window or carrying a travel ticket inside a wallet.

In the below example, the tag with red tuning is out of specs, but in a production environment, it may even appear better than the good tags, even though in use, it requires a lot more power (does not work as well).


Tagsurance HF is not limited to the reader frequency. It uses the frequency that is relevant for determining the quality of each tag design.


Another limitation of a typical NFC reader is that they are not accurate and calibrated test devices. Many readers just have their own (high) power level designed to maximize tag reading probability; some readers may have a power setting but not calibrated. As a result, the readers cannot properly detect tags that are working out of specs.

Having exact performance information also enables production personnel to adjust the machine parameters based on real data, and to enhance the tag quality. Our expert team has seen many cases of the tremendous impact of the Tagsurance system in various production lines with ‘side effects’ being improved transparency to Quality Assurance and better communications with suppliers and customers. Tagsurance is truly a unique asset that can drive impressive results in the production environment.

Download the Tagsurance Catalogue

Learn in detail how the Voyantic Tagsurance UHF and HF testers can improve the efficiency of your organization!

Oct 22, 2019

NFC-Powered Storytelling – A New Opportunity for Printing Companies

中文版 Chinese version

The Finns drink more coffee than anyone else in the world. If you read more, you’ll see what it has to do with NFC.

In the past year, I have given half a dozen presentations aimed to label printers and converters considering entry to smart label manufacturing. Just recently I introduced RAIN RFID to a group of printing professionals from Thailand and elsewhere in East Asia and South-East Asia in ASPT 2019 event in Bangkok. Many printing companies are thinking about how to replace declining ink-on-paper business, and smart labels are a good option.

NFC Based Marketing is a Good Way to Start in Smart Labels

A frequent question from print houses is simple: “What should we do, how do we get started with smart labels?” Embedded in this simple question are a number of other questions:

  • How should we invest and what we need to buy?
  • What should we tell to customers to convince them about RAIN RFID or NFC?
  • How should we train staff from sales to operations?
  • and more

After the ASPT Symposium, we visited Doi Chaang Coffee, a Thai coffee company. The company is an example of using packages to support their brand story. And what a story they had! The way they supported it with bio-plastic materials and package visuals was just perfect. In my mind, the story connected to the print houses’ question of how to get started. And one clear answer started to emerge.

Obviously, following the NFC marketing route to smart label manufacturing is only one of the options, but I believe it is a good one. The approach can be used by printing houses regardless of their business area, location or details of operations.

Doi Chaang Coffee – the Story

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Good Story Makes a Great Foundation

The Doi Chaang story is an excellent example of how storytelling is used in brand building. Having a great story helps a lot and that is a big advantage for Doi Chaang. The storyline has its heroes and villains; there are ups and downs in the plot.

After learning the story, and connecting the brand with the names and faces of individuals the consumer connection is deeper. It is not just a cup of coffee, but it is a cup of coffee from Doi Chaang region, from Mr. Pikor Saedoo and his family to me. When a company can communicate such a personal story to its customers, the likelihood of buying again increases. It is a very efficient way to improve brand loyalty.

What About the NFC?

For Doi Chaang, creating the story itself is not a challenge, as it already exists as part of the brand. Currently, the users are directed to the story through images and slogans on packages and brochures. The challenge is to get the full story to as many customers as possible by finding the right channel.

NFC Delivers the Story

Every customer that visits or purchases the Doi Chaang coffee without learning the story can be perceived as a lost opportunity for both the customer and the company. And that has everything to do with NFC.

NFC-enabled labels have many advantages, starting from the simplicity of use when the only required step is to bring your smartphone to the NFC label. Another big advantage is the full control over the brand message – rules must be followed, but there are no third party format requirements, policies or procedures for advertising. Last but not least, it improves the experience for the customers, leaving them more loyal to the brand of coffee they are drinking. If done right, NFC labels can help to build customer knowledge and focus segmentation efforts to deliver relevant and targeted content. A brand could also choose to drive online sales simply by adding a “Tap and Buy” NFC tag on the item.

Placing “tap me” NFC tags to tables and counters at Doi Chaang shops is likely to get several persons to tap the tag and see what is the content. And the content could be a video of the Doi Chaang story. With NFC the lost opportunity is saved. For illustrating the possibility we produced few tags for our internal use at the office. And placed them next to the Doi Chaang coffee we served in our kitchen. And people took the opportunity to tap & learn more about the story.

So, What Should the Printing Companies Do?

We made the tags with the Reelsurance machine. And that brings up the last point. When a printing company starts smart label manufacturing three things should align:

  1. There must be a customer with a need for smart label,
  2. There must be production equipment for making that type of smart labels,
  3. And there must be skills and knowledge to produce those labels.

Any Company With a Brand Name is a Potential Customer

When all of the questions: to whom, what and how are open, answering them becomes extremely hard. There are a lot of standards around RAIN RFID and NFC, there are numerous technology choices, and anyone can really need almost anything; so how do you know where to start? In my opinion, starting with NFC labels encoding for marketing purposes is a good choice. I believe it is easy to find customers interested in enhancing their storytelling and marketing. That is “to whom”.

Learn the Basics

This choice limits the technology challenges. An easy way to start is to purchase blank NFC labels and start with personalization – printing, and encoding. The tags would be ISO14443A tags encoded with the NDEF URL message. Voyantic Reelsurance automates this, you only need to know the web address to encode and the system takes care of the technical details. The inlay must be chosen, and that is something Voyantic can help with in the beginning. We will ask a few simple questions and help you to write specifications you can use in purchasing the blank labels. There are more possibilities in NFC than using it as a gateway to a website URL. It gets easier to expand the knowledge when you have already made the first step.

Reelsurance Tests and Encodes NFC Labels

The investment decision is also easy. When the use case is as clear as this, Voyantic can offer the complete reel-to-reel machine with quality testing and encoding capability in a single delivery. And our support includes getting started in manufacturing. The machine is upgradeable, different NFC cases can be made with the same equipment, and expanding NFC to RAIN RFID is the next milestone to consider.

Do you have a question about implementing NFC or RAIN RFID? Contact us and we will be happy to discuss!

Download the Reelsurance Catalogue

Learn more of the Voyantic’s multifunctional reel-to-reel machine Reelsurance that covers all your RAIN RFID and NFC testing and encoding needs!

Aug 27, 2019

NFC Encoding With Ensurance

中文版 Chinese version

NFC (Near Field Communication) seems to be in a positive growth phase at the moment. One reason for the positive trend is Apple’s gradual opening of NFC in their mobile phones, which means that soon nearly every smart phone in the market will be equipped with NFC capabilities. And it’s about time: the NFC Forum has been advocating the technology for the last 15 years.

In the RFID industry, NFC is often thought of as rebranding and repackaging of several HF RFID technologies that have been around for decades. However, the most valuable thing about NFC is the abstraction that it provides for application developers. Instead of learning about different radio protocols, they can focus on the actual use cases.

Similar thinking should be brought to the RFID manufacturing industry, especially in NFC tag encoding. Instead of talking about writing data into an ISO 14443-A tag, the focus should be in encoding a NTAG203 tag with a link to a web page.

NFC Just Works

When things are done right, NFC just works. Tapping an NFC tag with a mobile phone brings you to a brand owner’s website or gives you the contact information of an interesting person you have just met. But how is it done?

Essentially, NFC provides a defined way of organizing data inside a tag. This is done with the NFC Data Exchange Format (NDEF). NFC data is stored in an NDEF message in the tag memory. The NDEF message can be seen as a “folder” that contains one or more NDEF records. One record can contain for example a URL, WiFi credentials, or raw text.

So that’s it? Can we now encode NFC into any RFID tag? Well, not quite. NFC Forum has defined a set of “rules” a tag must follow to be NFC compliant. These are divided into (currently five) NFC Forum Types that define the used RF interface (ISO 14443A/B, ISO 15693, etc.), the command set, and the memory layout, among other things.

For example, to be compliant to NFC Forum Type 2, the tag should work with the ISO 14443A air interface and support Read and Write commands. In addition, the memory should be laid out so that the NDEF message starts at page 4, the serial data is in the beginning of the tag memory, and the locking bits should be at certain pre-set locations.

Encoding NFC Tags

Encoding small quantities of NFC tags is simple. All you need is an NFC enabled mobile phone and a suitable app. One pretty good app is TagWriter from NXP that allows encoding an NFC tag with different datasets such as a link, an e-mail, a telephone number, etc. The user does not need to understand the used RF protocols under the hood.

However, encoding NFC tags on an industrial level can be more tedious. For that, you typically need some machine that is able to process the tags roll-to-toll. If you know what you are doing, there is an abundance of different HF RFID readers and reader modules out there that can be used to encode NFC tags. However, typically, the readers are designed for reading rather than encoding NFC tags. In addition, different modules support different RFID protocols and NFC types, which may complicate the choice.

Voyantic’s encoding philosophy is that you shouldn’t be thinking about readers, RF protocols, or such. We will take care of that. What you need to know is what is the tag that you are encoding, and what do you want the tag to do when the end user interacts with the tag. This has been our approach when designing the Ensurance tag personalization solution.

Setting up NFC encoding in the Ensurance GUI requires selecting the used tag type and defining the encoding tasks. That’s it! And when combined together with performance testing, passing and failing tags can be encoded differently.

Ensurance is also available as a turn-key solution with Reelsurance Pro, which enables label encoding and performance testing, variable data printing, and barcode-based programming of the tag memory in a single office-sized machine.

Jul 17, 2019

NFC Tapping – Smartphone Performance Comparison

中文版 Chinese version

I recently visited an NFC forum meeting where I listened to industry presentations and discussed with many NFC industry experts. User experience, user expectation, and physical level interoperability of various NFC devices came up frequently. This prompted me to finish this article, a draft version was written already a while ago. I tested a few smartphones for NFC tapping user-friendliness and dug a bit deeper into the factors affecting the user experience.

Three NFC Application Types

When I think of NFC, I think of three very different application types and different experiences with them.

  1. Smart card: Think of a hotel keycard or a metro ticket. In my experience, NFC works smoothly and reliably in these applications. I have frequently had issues with magnetic stripe key cards, but NFC has worked perfectly. In these applications, a consumer carries the tag and a dedicated reader is used.
  2. Device-to-device: There are also emerging examples with excellent feedback of applications where 2 devices share information. For example, a phone placed to a center console of a car controls the settings of the car’s infotainment system.
  3. Simply tap: Third big promise of NFC is in applications where consumer carries a smartphone and interacts with NFC tagged items to receive more information. That is when the user experience changes – and not in a good direction.

The third application type – Simply tap – is the focus of this article.

Simply Tap Experience – Not So Simple

Promise: NFC works like waving a magic wand – simply tap.

It is a familiar situation: There is a web-link encoded to an NFC tag and the smartphone’s NFC is turned on. Enthusiastic user calmly extends the elbow and taps the tag with the top end of the phone – a move similar to a sorcerer waving a magic wand – but this time magic doesn’t happen.

Reality: Despite relentless tag rubbing with a smartphone – nothing happens.

Next try – slowly position the back cover of the phone on top of the tag – still nothing. Move the phone sideways on top of the tag; up to down; down to up; corner to corner – waving the magic wand did not work, maybe the NFC genie can be rubbed out from the tag. No. Check the settings. Try again. Ask a friend: “did you read it?” It should work – but it didn’t – no error message – nothing. A too common NFC user experience turns from a hopeful magic wand tapping into rubbing the NFC genie’s lamp into disappointment. What really happens? And what could be done for improving the user experience?

Digging Deeper: usually, NFC works, but details of the reading experience just don’t match the user’s expectations. In order to learn more, I looked more into what happens with smartphones and NFC. Here is what I found out.

Smartphone Reading Interval

Even if NFC is enabled, a phone is not reading NFC continuously. Instead, it checks occasionally if there is an NFC tag nearby waiting to be read. How often it is checked: As far as I know, there are no rules – most likely the interval depends on a lot of things: manufacturer’s preferences, operating system, power settings, other background applications taking up processor time, and many more. I tested two phones with Voyantic Protocol Analyzer. I found out that there is a big difference in how often phones try to read NFC tags.

Table 1. NFC Tapping With Phone Comparison – User Experience

Smartphone Reading Area

Different smartphones have different NFC reading areas. Reasons are not visible, but it is easy to come up with some ideas:

  • Different antenna positioning
  • Different antenna size and quality
  • Effect of nearby components
  • Different power levels

All in all, pointing a phone to an NFC tag is done differently from model to model.

Using phones’ default settings, I tested two phones.

  • With phone model A:
    the ideal position was pointing upper part of the phone in 30-degree angle towards the tag
  • With phone model B:
    the ideal position was slightly below the top part of the phone

Table 2. NFC Tapping With Phone Comparison – Positioning

Some phone models inform the user about the antenna position on the NFC setting screen, or in the startup screen. But some leave the antenna position hidden, only to be discovered by the user by relentless rubbing and experimenting.

NFC Tag Placement

In the first tests, the NFC tag was completely visible for the user, and it was possible to touch the tag. This is not always the case. In the second test I used Voyantic Reference Material Set to simulate “tap the window” use case. The inlay was behind a business card, which was behind a sheet of glass. The user experience changed completely – and not in a good direction.

A small change in tag placement can have a huge effect

Few millimeters between the phone and the inlay – slight detuning from the glass and the fact that exact inlay position was not known made things difficult. Some tags conveniently readable on air were not readable on “tap the window” application, and with most tags, exact phone positioning was needed.

Table 3. NFC Tapping With Phone Comparison – Through Glass

NFC Tag Sensitivity and Tuning

The above tests were made using an NFC inlay with 35 mm diameter round antenna – something that could be conveniently used in a price tag in a retail store. But tags are not equal. The inlay I used required 225 mA/m magnetic field strength for activation. When I tested two other “price tag size” NFC inlays with Voyantic Tagformance Pro the required activation energies were 750 mA/m and 1500 mA/m. Sensitivity and quality of the tag have an effect on the user experience.

Chart 1. Tag Sensitivity

When activation power increases, the practical effect is that a range of positions on which a tag can be read decreases. With both of the tested phones even weaker tags worked well when the reading position was optimal and touching the tag was possible. But slightly “mis-tapping” the tag left it unread and testing the “tap the window” use-case with phone model A was unsuccessful.

Too commonly NFC tag performance and quality are not really tested and suitability to an application is not properly evaluated. Often only antenna is tested with passive testing made with network analyzer – result tells about the antenna tuning, but that is not the full view to the NFC tag. When the chip is attached to the antenna, and when the tag is attached to an item, the tuning changes. And passive testing does not really tell anything about the required activation energy, which is the key. Only active testing tells the entire story. Below graph shows one NFC tag individual tested in 4 scenarios. Tag attached to a glass, tag on air, and antenna only.

Chart 2. Active and Passive Tests

Smartphone Functionality

The test was made with two phone models, one equipped with an Android operating system and another with Windows. Both of these try reading NFC tag periodically when the NFC is turned on, without any additional applications. The full list of NFC-enabled phones is available here.

iPhone and IOS were not tested since iPhone only allows reading NFC tag with a separate application – without it no amount magic wand-waving or rubbing the NFC genie works. An upcoming iOS 13 is supposed to change this.

How Could NFC Systems Be Improved?

What can the user do?
There is not much a user can do, the only reasonable thing is to “know ones phone”: How long it takes to read a tag and what is the best reading position. The best way to find these out is to take a working tag and try. No rubbing – just touch the tag with phones top few seconds using different positions and angles. In reality, the responsibility to improve user experience lies almost entirely on technology providers.

What can system integrators do?
System integrators control several items of the system: Which tag is used, how the tag is placed, how the tag is presented and so on.

  • User expectations should be steered to match the actual technology performance. Maybe replacing “tap me” with another phrase such as “tap to download” would steer the user to a longer action than a quick tap.
  • When personalizing the tags the “tap me” text should indicate accurately the NFC inlay position. Incorrect or inaccurate positioning decreases the usability and results in bad user experience.
  • Selecting the correct tag for an application is the cornerstone of a well-functioning NFC system. Applications and items vary – Sometimes it is possible to touch the tag with below 1 mm distance – sometimes the applications may require few millimeters reading distance. Tag tuning may also be affected by different materials on which the tag is attached. If a wrong tag is used, the system works poorly or not at all.

What can smartphone manufacturers do?
Smartphone manufacturers control the main interface between the NFC system and the user. If the interface works reliably and the use matched expectations, the system is likely to work well.

  • NFC reading should be enabled on smartphones without a separate application
  • Reading interval should be short enough to enable the smooth user experience
  • The phone’s antenna quality and positioning should allow intuitive “tap and read” in different scenarios: tag on table and tag on the wall.
  • It would help system integrators and tag manufacturers to know the phone profiles – how strong the magnetic field the phone’s NFC reader can generate at different distances. This data could be compared with the required activation energies in different applications.

What can NFC tag manufacturers do?
NFC tag is the second technical item in an NFC system. Well performing good quality NFC tags are obviously the tag manufacturers’ responsibility.

  • Tag manufacturers should ensure that tag sensitivity is sufficient and quality matches the application and expected user experience. Materials between phone and tag should be taken into account.
  • When printing the tag the “tap me” or other guiding text should be correctly placed and guide user expectations to the right direction.

What should NFC forum do?
NFC Forum is known for creating and maintaining the NFC standards and advocating NFC use among other industries and to consumers. In my opinion, this is also a source for some of the user experience issues.

  • In addition (or even instead) of standardizing the NFC tag performance with technical terms such as defining activation magnetic field, NFC Forum could standardize (or at least recommend) user experience criteria. A tag may have one activation energy but the user experience changes, if the tag is placed on cardboard, versus behind a window. User experience should be similar in both cases. Complexity increases further if the same performance criteria is forced to device to device and smart card applications. In my opinion, the user experience requirements should be different for the three application types
  • NFC forum should recommend system integrators and manufacturers to indicate clearly where the tag is placed, and where the phone´s antenna is. Discussion on this topic are on-going among NFC Forum members, and I have seen excellent practical ideas.

I am eagerly looking forward to the bright future of simply tap NFC.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about the NFC tapping? Contact us – I would be happy to discuss this in more detail!