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Innovision R&T’s technical director Heikki Huomo believes his firm’s technology could bring every piece of data and transaction you could wish for to your mobile phone. Jon Excell reports.

Ask most engineers about radio frequency identification and they’ll probably tell you about the tiny tags used to track goods around a factory or fast-track frequent toll-road users through payment booths. But while both applications are interesting, and part of a rapidly growing industry, RFID as hi-tech barcode is only really half the story, because the technology that underpins it could help shape our environment in far more exciting and significant ways.

Some even claim that RFID-based technology could revolutionise the way in which we go about our daily business, arming us with mobile handsets that instantly recognise other electronic devices and enabling us to buy everything from groceries to theatre tickets using safe contact-less transactions.

Ultimately, such devices could even enable us to access a context-sensitive world wide web where smart tags embedded in everything from bus stops to shop window displays will instantly direct our handheld devices to relevant information.

This vision is shared by some of the biggest names in the electronics and telecoms industries, including Nokia, Motorola, Sony, Samsung and Philips. It also happens to chime very nicely with the ambitions of UK chip design house Innovision R&T.

Based in Gloucestershire, Innovision specialises in RFID and the emerging related area of near field communications (NFC). This is a form of very short range wireless technology that enables simple two-way interactions between electronic devices over distances of just a few centimetres.

The company’s technical direction is spearheaded by Finnish technology chief Heikki Huomo, a trained physicist and self-confessed ‘hardcore technologist’ who joined Innovision last year after 10 years at mobile phone giant Nokia. Initially heading the Nokia research centre laboratory of radio communications, Huomo became the company’s vice-president of research and technology before, most recently, turning his attention to NFC.

NFC is based on inductive coupling, where loosely coupled inductive circuits share power and data over a distance of a few centimetres. NFC devices share the basic technology with RFID tags but, rather than using radio fields, make a coupling between devices using a magnetic field.

Huomo’s work at Nokia saw the company launch the world’s first NFC-based mobile phone at last year’s CEBIT show. Known as the Nokia shell, this phone automatically links to relevant websites when tapped against NFC-enabled adverts.

But with NFC appearing on a mobile phone for the first time, Huomo felt the need to move on and continue the pattern of a career that has always looked beyond the latest product launch to the tantalising possibilities of the future. ‘My role is really about cutting-edge research,’ he said, ‘how to stay in a field and contribute, and in this situation for me it meant changing the organisation.’ Now Huomo’s team at Innovision is developing the technology and the knowledge that could be at the heart of a host of future devices.

One of the big advantages of NFC is that devices enabled with the technology are able to communicate simply by bringing them close together, making it far easier to exchange information. Huomo said that as a result NFC will get around the complex set-up procedures required for many other wireless connection technologies. ‘Today if you take a picture on your phone and you send it to a friend over Bluetooth it’s a bit cumbersome. With NFC it would be incredibly easy and far more human. It’s a very intuitive way of pairing devices and exchanging data between two devices,’ he said.

The technology also has great potential for payment and ticketing, claimed Huomo: ‘Instead of contact-less cards, your phone could become your card. You could turn it on and off. From the phone screen you could see how much value you have left on your card and you could download more value from the network rather than going to a counter.’

However, the killer application, described by Huomo as ‘the big pot of gold at the end of the rainbow’, is the development of so-called smart posters, where users would use NFC-enabled handsets to link to relevant URLs embedded in the world around them. Huomo explained: ‘On a poster at the bus stop you could touch and get the news, or the bus schedules for a given bus stop at a given moment. If you used your WAP phone to try to find the schedule information, yes, it does exist but it is damned hard because you don’t have the context, but if you add the context that it’s 2pm on Monday at X,Y,Z suddenly the amount of data that is relevant is very small and only the correct data comes back.

‘That to me is the ultimate: easy access to the wealth of information that does exist and how to get access to it in an intuitive way,’ he said.

Innovision’s first concrete step towards this vision was announced last month with the launch of Topaz, an NFC platform for consumer electronics and mobile applications. Late last month Topaz was mandated as the type 1 tag format for the NFC standard. ‘It will open up a myriad opportunities for consumer electronics, PC and mobile phone companies, as well as payment providers, chip manufacturers and systems integrators,’ commented Huomo.

He believes the NFC business is going to be huge, and his optimism is backed by a recent study performed by industry analyst ABI Research projects which claimed that 50 per cent of mobile phones will support NFC technology by 2009. The same study claims that by 2007 higher-volume NFC deployments will be common, first in wireless handsets, then in many different kinds of consumer electronics, from PCs to cameras, printers, set-top boxes and more.

However, a key factor in the uptake of the technology could well prove to be user acceptance and the industry’s ability to address the frequently stated fear that the RFID industry will allow marketeers cynical Big Brother-style access to private information.

Huomo suggested that concerns over NFC being used to gather and sell information on individuals are unfounded. Such fears are, he claimed, merely a classic example of technology that is ultimately embraced being treated with initial suspicion. ‘I feel that most of it is about a fear of the unknown. Some people look at it as an opportunity, while some look at it as a threat to their current lifestyle.’

He suggested that retailers actually have an extremely high business interest in ensuring that this doesn’t happen — as the consequences of such sinister rumours would be hugely damaging for business.

The bottom line is convenience, and from Huomo’s perspective the future promised by NFC is considerably more user-friendly than what we have at the moment.

‘I come from Finland where everyone’s address is known, we’ve had photo IDs for 100 years and if you need to deal with the government it is damned easy,’ he said. ‘If you need to deal with the government here in the UK you need to produce your passport, your gas bill and so on and so on. Call that privacy? To me it’s a nuisance.’