How high-fiving your front door can let you can ditch the keys
31st Aug 2013 | 11:50
Open doors and start cars with a simple fist bump
Whatever your feelings about the humble fist bump, be it panic when expecting a handshake or derision at the hipster's favourite way of greeting, it could be the new way to open your front door.
Not through a combination of super-strength and an infinite supply of doors, but through what could be the next step in wearable technology, the new trend that's covering everything from fitness to reminding you to buy the milk.
A new NFC ring, from inventor John McLear, a slim-line dual sided device that slots neatly on your finger and uses contactless technology that can communicate with other NFC enabled devices to help automate everyday tasks that we hold not so dear.
NFC (Near Field Communication) technology has been bubbling away for a few years now, but while included as standard in most phones and tablets, it has limited usability and few have come up with ideas to utilise it as a tool for data transmission.
Contactless payments are on the rise thought, and even though most of the card providers don't use NFC, the concept of easy wireless transfer is forcing its way into our everyday lives.
So with the landscape begging for something to catalyse it into action, could the NFC ring be the contactless saviour? The new device can unlock phones, pass on digital business cards, give Wi-Fi passwords to friends, start a car, hold your bitcoin address and most interestingly, unlock doors.
TechRadar was luckily to get its hands on the NFC ring, so we decided to find out the answers to the obvious questions as soon as you pick up a novel concept such as this.
Is it really just a ring?
Yes, and as long as you don't mind a bit of bling or people coming up to you asking 'when's the big day' then you should be OK. It comes in a number of designs (we've got the oak on metal version) but the standard is a simple, one colour, metal ring.
It has two NFC chips inside:the public side, which transmits data that you're happy to share with others – like contact details and website links – and a private side for the more personal stuff, like unlocking your door. The public side is designed to sit on the top of your hand, and the private part on the underside.
As with other NFC devices, it's programmable and this can be done simply by holding the ring up to the 'sweetspot' (where the NFC receiver is) on your phone and connecting. All you need to do then is download the app and select how you want to use it.
Once you've decided, you'll need to hold it up to the sweet spot again and let it transfer the information to the ring.
In the app you can set it to perform a wide range of tasks, with the app coming with some basic suggestions such as adding your Facebook or Twitter addresses or linking to a particular website.
But there's so much more potential on offer here, so we decide to explore this a bit further. We set the ring to hold a link to a download of some free virus protection software, and sure enough, when it touched another device, it began the download.
The possibilities instantly feel vast, you'll be able to hold Payment information on the ring and pass it on to friends who owe you money, or give people links to videos and live streaming events in a matter of seconds without fluffing about with addresses.
Interestingly, to differentiate between private and public functions, you'll need to use different gestures – a clever way to programme yourself into not making a potentially costly or embarrassing mistake.
For example, if you want to pass on your Twitter address – a public function – you'll need to use a closed fist to expose the outer side of the ring. If you want to unlock your door – a private function – you'll need to use an open palm gesture.
So this basically means you'll be fist bumping another person's phone to connect on Twitter, and high fiving your front door to gain access - which will appeal to some people and put others off.
Of all the possible uses, it's unlocking doors that has initially captured people's imagination when you speak to them about the NFC ring.
You'll obviously need an NFC enabled digital door lock for it to work, which can be picked up for £223 ($249 US, $276 AUS). It's as simple as touching the designated area on the door and it unlocks. This 'automated home' concept is popular with futurists, but it does present some security problems.
The ring utilises the private underside function that's not readable to others to unlock doors, but naturally concerns have been raised over the readability of the ring and people possibly hacking your door.
TechRadar spoke to Tony Anscombe, senior security evangelist at AVG security who raised concerns over how safe the ring actually is:
"[If you look at security researcher] Charlie Miller's research last year, he revealed the weaknesses in NFC technology through two demonstrations, one on a mobile device and the other a hotel room key.
"The basic flaw in a hotel key is that someone can replicate the device by being near it and reading the information it holds.
"Potentially this same 'hack' could also occur with a ring if someone places a device to take its information in a location where you often place your hands – perhaps a door handle or bar, for example."
Inventor McLear refutes the idea that the device is unsafe. He explained to TechRadar that the read distance of the ring is 1mm, which is purely for security reasons, meaning it's unlikely that anyone would be able to take data from your ring without physically touching you.
He also said that the inlays (readable sides of the ring) are programmed to generate cross talk, so it's impossible to tell which side of the ring is delivering which bit of information.
Although safeguards are in place, there is still the basic issue of theft, Anscombe explained:
"The concept of a proximity-based token (whether a ring, badge, key ring, or whatever convenient device we decide to carry) has many potentially positive uses.
"However, there is one other fundamental security issue that depends on its implementation: as a single factor authentication device, in some situations it would not be enough to ensure complete security.
"What happens if it is stolen and is the only thing needed to open your house and it falls into the wrong hands and potentially leaves your home easily accessible by criminals?
"For NFC gadgets to become a viable way to hold personal data securely, a second authentication process must be integrated."
This concept is clearly becoming more popular since larger, well known manufactures are starting to jump on the NFC train. David Herbert, head of marketing for lock makers Yale told us that devices like the NFC ring were firmly on the company's radar, and that they, along with smartphones, were the kind of thing that would take the lock-maker's business to 'the next level'.
Motorola, too, is working on a PIN NFC free clip that can be worn around the wrist and used to unlock your mobile, and, theoretically, anything else you programme it to do. Does McLear think these devices are competitors to the NFC ring, or complementary?
"My thoughts on the Motorola clip is that it's great, as you can use your NFC ring instead of the clip on Motorola devices so everybody wins! Motorola haven't been in touch and also there is no incentive for telecommunications companies to support them with the clip so I think it might be tough for them to use the device to get new market penetration.
"Consumers aren't that security savvy but they are fashion conscious and I think the ring has a better image/brand than the clip."
John's attitude to competition is what's driving this project and probably what convinced so many people on Kickstarter to back it (7765 to a tune of $241,947 / £155,000 / AUS$270,000). He told us he was relaxed about competition from the larger brands in the NFC space, as it would help prove the technology to consumers.
The device is completely open source and can be programmed and used in any way. The ring will be shipped with the necessary files so those with the necessary hardware can even 3D print their own rings at home and customise it however they want.
"We're doing this to show our love for the hacker community and to get as many people with access to prototyping and developing as quickly and affordable as possible," said McLear.
This is clearly a key point for the inventor: he wants people to hack the device as he believes in 'innovation and creativity'. Just like custom firmware for phones and consoles, he wants to encourage others to push the boundaries of what's possible with the NFC ring.
We're only at the start of what can be done with devices like the NFC ring and since automating everyday functions is becoming more and more standard, we could see it or similar items becoming an integral part of day to day life.
But, with any new technology, it's success is dependent on popularity rather than ability, and NFC has especially struggled to get user traction with a dearth of killer uses, which McLear acknowledges:
"[T]he future holds a bunch of community-created tools and wearable objects with security and access at the core. I think telecommunication companies and banks will continue to push [NFC] onto consumers and I think [areas like] Bitcoin will benefit massively from devices such as the NFC ring.
"NFC is mature enough right now for practical applications and it's clear NFC might end up being a great gateway to leveraging future tech such as cost effective inductive charging/coupling."
The idea is solid and the technology looks like it stands up to scrutiny; however, the big question mark hangs over whether any contactless technology can force its way into the hearts and minds of consumers.
Focusing on the fashion concious and hacker communities might be a great move for McLear, with both offering fierce loyalty if the product is right. The NFC ring will be heading out to Kickstarter backers from September this year, so perhaps in a couple of years' time shaking hands with a long-lost friend might go from a mere greeting to a chance to share all the info you've missed out on over the years.
- Check out the other side of the power-coin: see the 10 things you never knew your smartphone could do.