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Wii U: WTF is NFC?

Near Field Communication brings toys to life, and is the miracle technology at the heart of Wii U.

This article originally appeared in Nintendo Gamer magazine.

Nosy journalists might ask Activision to explain the mechanism behind Skylanders' 'portal of power' - and they'll be told it's "magic". A rather whimsical notion from the company best known for Call Of Guns: Guns Kill Murder Death Guns. If Activision did believe in fairies, they'd find a way to enslave and monetise them. That said, you'd be pushed to find a better word. Placing an action figure on the real-world mount and seeing it appear inside the TV is 'magical'; a reverse augmented reality, where flesh and blood (and plastic) shapes a digital world instead.


It's the wonder famously defined in Arthur C Clarke's three laws: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Our sufficiently advanced technology in this case is NFC, or Near Field Communication, a short-range wireless tech set to revolutionise the modern world. And, thanks to that famous Nintendo foresight, it's a technology at the heart of Wii U's radical new controller. "We have decided to install an NFC function," Iwata told investors in January. "The non-contact NFC standard that is expected to be widely used around the world in the near future." But what is this technology, and how will it change our gaming experience?

On paper, NFC might appear the runt of the wireless litter. Data transfer has a maximum range of four inches, and the 'tags' - where information is stored - hold up to 32kb. Needless to say, that isn't enough to fit an entire game, film or TV episode. Hell, you'd be hard pushed to squeeze Tyrion Lannister into this digital cubbyhole. What it does offer is speed and ease. Touch a tag to the NFC reader (in our case, the Wii U tablet) and you're off. None of the faff of pairing Bluetooth devices, or photographing QR codes (but like QR codes, NFC tags are popularly used to zap URLs to phones).

Lacking their own power source, tags absorb energy from a radio frequency field - emitted by the NFC reader - enabling them to send back their stored information. It's similar to the witchcraft that allows London's Oyster cards to beam money from a bit of inanimate cardboard straight into Boris Johnson's fur coat and caviar fund. Those cards use an older technology called RFID, or radio-frequency identification. The natural evolution of RFID, NFC brings a vital new trick to the party: the ability to send information back to the tags.


In Skylanders, rewriting is how the toys 'magically' (that word again) memorise their names and stats. Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg told Wired that the appeal is having an experience that's "not living in the digital world, that's living in the physical world. Kids take that toy, put it in their pocket and play it on their friend's machine and that is their guy, that is their toy - it's not a generic experience." The functionality caught Iwata's eye. He cites the possibility of creating "cards and figurines that electronically read and write data via non-contact NFC" as a means to "expand a new play format in the videogame world".


Based on the Skylanders model, the obvious application would be Pokémon. Ever since its inception, Pokémon has traded on the excitement of personalisation, of filling your pockets with beasts specific to you. If anything, digitally trading Pokémon detracts from the fantasy - seeing all the listed 'mon on the Global Trade Station reminds you that they are merely lines of code being shunted round the web. Imagine writing a specific Pokémon to a NFC Pokéball. What better way to hammer home the notion of individuality, and rarity, than having that data in a single locked physical form. Reality and fiction begin to blur as physical swaps are made.

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