More NFC applications needed to drive mobile wallet revolution

Near-Field Communication (NFC) was one of the major themes of this year's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, with a broad range of chip card – including Nokia, Samsung, Blackberry and Huawei – announcing new products that take advantage of the technology.

But the promise of NFC has been around for some time, and anyone who has been following the progress of the technology over the past few years will be forgiven if their enthusiasm is beginning to wane. Retailers, banks, mobile operators and device manufacturers are all desperate to get NFC into the mainstream, but so far consumers just aren't biting.

Part of this could be down to the fact that so much of the focus of NFC is on mobile wallets. The idea of mobile wallets is that eventually we won't need to carry plastic cards and cash around with us, because we will have digital wallets on our phones, and we will be able to pay for items in shops simply by touching our devices to a point of sale (POS) terminal.

While this may seem like an attractive proposition, the reality is that mobile wallets are extremely difficult to get right. As Ovum analyst Eden Zoller pointed out in one of the sessions, most transaction sizes are small, revenues are often shared between several players, and margins can be further eroded through transaction processing fees.

To add to the confusion, mobile wallets can be implemented in a number of different ways, using a variety of enabling technologies. This makes them confusing for merchants, who are trying to work out which types of solution they should invest in, and also alienates consumers, who don't see why they should forego existing payment mechanisms.

Interestingly, when I visited the 'NFC Experience' at MWC, there wasn't a mobile wallet in sight. Instead, I walked around three stands, all of which were showing off completely different uses of NFC technology.

The first company, Israeli start-up Tag-a-Bag, was demonstrating an NFC-based travel service that uses luggage labels equipped with NFC tags to help travellers manage their journeys. The service allows users to track lost luggage, access travel plans, post news of their safe arrival to friends and family via social media, receive offers and create a log of their travels.

The third example showed how an NFC-enabled phone could be used as a boarding pass in an airport to access security, the lounge and the boarding gate. The boarding pass is sent to the phone as an SMS and stored on the SIM, so that even if the phone is switched off, the user can verify their identity and flight details by touching their phone to a terminal.

All of these seem like interesting and genuinely useful examples if mobile NFC that will not only appeal to consumers but also businesses users. They show how a technology that is already built in to most smartphone devices today can be used to improve the efficiency of everyday actions.

This got me thinking that maybe the whole obsession with using NFC for mobile wallets is misguided. There is still an awful lot of work to do before using phones to pay in shops becomes ubiquitous – not least because many people are quite content to continue using SMS or USSD for mobile transactions.

Ten to 20 times more powerful than older fridge or ferrite magnets, the rare-earth neodymium magnets can attract and anchor to one another across loops of intestine, creating a force so strong it can tear a hole in the bowel, a team from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children reports in this week’s edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

According to data from the Public Health Agency of Canada, 328 children under 14 were seen in an emergency department between 1993 and 2007 because of an injury associated with magnets. More than half — 178 — had swallowed magnets.

In the United States, at least 480 cases of high-powered magnet ingestions have been reported over the past decade, according to the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition; 204 of those cases occurred in the past 12 months.

The majority occurred in children six and under. But teens are also inadvertently swallowing or inhaling magnets worn to mimic tongue, lip and nose piercings, the American group warned last October.

Most of the cases involve magnets sold in desktop sets of 50 or 100 balls used to create different shapes. The kits aren’t marketed to children and are labelled to keep out of the hands of children.

“But desks are right at a small toddler’s reach and if they grab one or two, you might not notice they’re missing. If they ingest more than one, that’s when issues come up,” says Dr. Daniel Rosenfield, a pediatric resident at the University of Toronto and Hospital for Sick Children.

Signs of ingestion include vomiting, abdominal pain and fever — symptoms so common in children that they can lead to serious delays in diagnosis, the doctors warn.

The Toronto team describes one case where a child who had “surreptitiously” swallowed a magnet underwent an MRI of his neck for an unrelated health problem. He ended up with a perforated bowel.

Another three-year-old needed laparoscopic surgery to remove three neodymium magnets from his abdomen that had eroded through two loops of intestine. When he was first seen in emergency, his only symptom was drooling. But an X-ray showed three magnets in different parts of his stomach. Because they had not connected with each other and he wasn’t in pain, he was sent home with instructions to his parents to watch his stool for signs the magnets had passed.

Two days later, the child was back in emergency with abdominal pain. “An X-ray showed that all three magnets had come together. We knew at that point that they weren’t going to be going anywhere,” Rosenfield said.

The magnets can attract, causing pressure across the gut, “and that portion of the gut dies as the magnets are pulled together. Once the tissue dies and gets infected, that’s what causes the symptoms.”

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