When Apple CEO Tim Cook took to the stage at the Flint Center in Cupertino, California, in September, he showed off not just a new version of the company’s iPhone, the iPhone 6 and 6S, but also an entirely new device for Apple, the Apple Watch. The watch seeks to become a part of its users’ wardrobes—to be taken everywhere from a workout at the gym to board meetings. Two of the device’s underlying technologies—near-field communication, or NFC, and inductive charging—might allow it to become an essential device.
Radio frequency identification, or RFID—of which NFC is a subset—and inductive charging are two key technologies that allow machines to become more both more robust and more flexible than other devices. They allow devices to exchange data with other machines and recharge their batteries without compromising their structural integrity through the intrusion of external wires.
In fields ranging from transportation to construction, RFID, for one, is becoming increasingly indispensable to users of brilliant machines that are designed to collect and transmit data as they go about their work. Technology research firm IDTechEx estimates that the global market for RFID technology will more than triple in the next 10 years, from $8.89bn in 2014 to $27.31b in 2024. Among the benefits driving the adoption of RFID technology are more resilient and versatile machines as well as supply chains.
Construction is another industry that stands to benefit. The Hong Kong Housing Authority, for example, has mandated that new housing be built with materials such as window frames, doors, and drywall that are embedded with RFID chips. These smart building materials can then be tracked throughout the construction process as they are handled by construction equipment designed to communicate with them. RFID-enabled building materials can also be equipped with strain gauges and other sensors to report on their condition wirelessly following natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods, thus enabling the replacement of only those structures that report significant damage.
Manufacturing plants, too, are increasingly turning to RFID technology to allow machines to communicate with the equipment and raw materials used in the creation of new products. For example, a worker driving a RFID-enabled forklift can be electronically directed to a RFID-enabled tank of chemicals that reports that it needs to be filled.
Similarly, inductive charging cuts the power cord to electric devices. This allows such devices not only to maintain greater structural integrity through the elimination of external cords—as benefits the Apple Watch—but, in the case of robotic machines, to have greater range and flexibility as well. Mobile phone chip giant Qualcomm is developing inductive charging systems for electric car makers. According to Joe Barrett, senior director of marketing at Qualcomm, this technology, combined with driverless car technology, could eventually allow fleets of autonomous taxis to respond to rider requests for drop-offs and pickups. No human intervention would be required even for refuelling. Cars could simply park themselves over a charging pad when they detected low battery levels. The benefits to major cities would be fewer cars on the streets, cleaner air and a waiting time for taxis as short as 20 seconds.
It’s too early to tell whether the Apple Watch—which won’t be available until at least early 2015—will be the blockbuster hit that the iPod, the iPad and the iPhone were before it. But it does seem fair to say that two of the device’s capabilities—NFC and inductive charging—could give it an advantage over previous smart watches. Cutting the cord gives electronic devices and other machines increased resilience and flexibility, which is why the technologies allowing them to do so are taking the world by storm—even if the success of the newest devices remains to be seen.
Published in collaboration with GE Look Ahead
Author: Michael Belfiore writes for GE Look Ahead.
Image: Apple CEO Tim Cook stands in front of a screen displaying apps available for the Apple Watch. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith.