Near-field communication (NFC) and RFIDs seem to be a total mess

In the last week or so I encountered three different problems with near-field communication and/or RFIDs. This made me realise that we don’t seem to have thought things through properly.

The first example is benign yet irritating. The books I get from the library have an RFID-tag inside of them. This allows for easy borrowing and returns: just put the book (or multiple books I believe) on the table, press a few buttons on the touch-screen and you are done. Yet, when I now put my phone near any of these books, my phone thinks there is something interesting to scan or read, doesn’t seem to understand what is happening, and emits some form of error sound.

The second problem I encountered when I walked with my bike into the underground bicycle parking lot at Leidseplein. My bike has an RFID-tag that allows me contactless entry into the parking at Central Station, but not at Leidseplein apparently. The machine at Leidseplein tried to read the tag on my bike and concluded I could not gain entry, while ignoring the pass I was showing it as an alternative. It didn’t seem to be able to correctly chose between the two devices trying to communicate with it.

The final problem shows how thoughtless we implement our technologies. It has been possible for a while now to buy a train ticket in the app of our national railways (the NS). To get access to the platformy you check-in by showing the QR code that the app generates to an optical scanner. Since a couple of weeks, it is now possible to pay with your phone (or with a contactless card) at the same terminal. So now if you unlock your phone and try to have the QR code scanned, you automatically pay with your phone payment system, making you pay twice.

So what are we to do?

Yes, I can obviously turn off the NFC on my phone, and maybe I shouldn’t have put an RFID on my bike. But I do enjoy the convenience of paying with my phone and of walking straight into the parking garage. Without putting a lot of thought into it, I can see three possible directions for solutions, all of them introducing some form of friction into this problem-creating efficiency:

  1. Change how my phone or how the RFIDs work. Maybe having to press on the tag of my bike before it can be read, or having to press a button on my phone to enable NFC.
  2. Change the machines that read the information. Why doesn’t the terminal at the trains allow me to pick between the two options? Or why isn’t the machine at the parking garage aware that there are two systems trying to ‘talk’ to it?
  3. Make the connection between two things more explicit. A bit like how you have to aim a scanner at a QR-code, but then translated to how you make two devices to talk to each other.

I would be interested in hearing about whether there are any plans to implement some of these solutions in some way…