Despite being heavily tipped for inclusion in the latest version of Apple's iPhone, near field communication (NFC) technology didn't make the final cut and remains on the wants list. The new iPad and iPad mini are similarly lacking, leaving iDevice users lagging a little behind in the short-range wireless connectivity department. A project has just launched on crowd-funding portal Kickstarter, which offers iPhone and iPad users a simple and relatively inexpensive way to join the NFC revolution. FloJack from Flomio is a small disc-shaped NFC reader/writer for Apple mobile devices that conveniently plugs into a 3.5-mm audio port.
Richard Grundy, John Bullard, Tim Ronan and Fernando Cejas are on a mission to expand the NFC ecosystem as quickly as possible. Collectively known as Flomio, the team of developers has been working on a small, lightweight NFC reader/writer called FloJack since August 2011. The current design is some 2,000 percent smaller than the original prototype, measuring 2.2 x 1.6 x 0.4 inches (58.3 x 43 x 10.3 mm) and weighing in at just 1 ounce (28 g).
A black or white plastic shell houses a 1.25-inch (31.75-mm) diameter circular PCB sporting a low-power MSP430 MCU running at 6.78 MHz and one of a number of different antenna options (a 7-coil, 22 mm 1.283 uH antenna is included as standard).
A removable back cover allows users to swap out the 3V CR2023 Lithium battery when the included cell runs dry. Flomio says that "the FloJack is extremely power efficient. The consumption per polling interval is ~10uAs. On a 250 mAh CR2032, this works out to about 90 MM polls. At the polling rate of an Android device (10 Hz), the FloJack would last just over three months. But since FloJack's sleep mode kicks in when apps stop using it, we estimate typical usage patterns will allow upwards of a year of battery life."
A four-pole connector sticks out of the bottom and is plugged into the audio jack of an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch to facilitate wireless bi-directional serial communication between devices or special tags. An NFC Actions App allows users to program any NFC tag to allow friends, family, colleagues or customers to trigger actions using their devices. Flomio has produced its own proprietary Zapp tags, but says that the FloJack can read all NFC Forum tags (Type 1, 2, 3 and 4) and any other tags conforming to ISO 14443A/B, ISO 15693 and ISO 18092.
"The FloJack will read 14443 tags at about one inch [2.5 cm] away," Grundy told us. "For 15693 tags, the FloJack can be configured to read as far as five inches [12.7 cm]. It should be noted, however, that these estimates are all dependent on what NFC tags are used and if the FloJack antenna has been tuned appropriately."
The tags can be used to automatically launch apps, show reminders, call contacts, or check the weather before you leave the house, but also open up possibilities like NFC-enabled greetings cards that trigger a video, message, web page or map to load on a device screen.
A FloJack SDK has been created to allow third party developers to add NFC to their iOS apps. It's just been put through internal testing at Flomio and will be released shortly.
In order to bring FloJack to market at an attractive price point, the Miami-based development team has started a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter and, at the time of writing, an "early bird" pledge level of US$39 for one FloJack unit and five Zapp tags has already sold out. Backers will now have to part with at least $10 more to support the project. Other funding levels include one where the Flomio team will work with the backer to custom engineer an NFC project of their very own.
If all goes well, the first FloJack backers should start receiving their units by March 2013. Grundy told us that while Flomio has secured several enterprise partners, if the project fails to reach its funding goal, future availability at something approaching Kickstarter pricing is unlikely.
"We will likely continue using the FloJack in our own system solutions," he said. "But without Kickstarter funding we'll have to offer it at $120 per unit to the open market."
As I see it, there may be one possible drawback to widespread adoption among the Apple device user community, and that's a reluctance by some to spoil the general gorgeousness of an iDevice by having attachments protruding from its body – as noted in our recent review of the Mikey from Blue Microphones.
Such users would doubtless rather use an NFC-enabled iDevice case of some kind, and the folks at Flomio recognize this (and have received a lot of requests for one) and have said that they will start looking into incorporating the FloJack technology into snug, protective enclosures if the Kickstarter campaign is successful.
The team also acknowledges that "iPads and iPhones will have NFC at some point in the near future. We hope they do, and we’re sure it will be glorious. Flomio’s not just a hardware company. The FloJack is like an NFC band-aid. It’s not meant to stick there forever. It’s meant to bridge a wide gap and allow all of the current hundreds of millions of Apple device owners the ability to experience NFC, right now, today. Even after Apple mobile devices start shipping with NFC, a FloJack can transform older iOS devices into NFC Touchpoints, or nodes, that can each run a number of small business NFC Solutions from our NFC Cloud Engine."
The Flomio Cloud is described as a CMS that has been designed specifically for NFC styled applications. Permissions, state control, REST API, web sockets, and social media pairing are all supported. It's currently still in development but is set for release soon.
Watch the Kickstarter campaign video below for a short project overview.