Near Field Communication technology changing the way we see things



By Izan Coomonte, NFC Bootcamp staff member and NFC enthusiast

While doing market research about different near field communication (NFC) companies, I found TapVision among hundreds of companies; and I must admit that I was thrilled when I first started reading about this company. TapVision’s goal is to improve the independence of the visually-impaired, both in their home and work environments. I had the opportunity to interview Bart Honing, owner of TapVision, who shared why he created TapVision, its solutions and its future plans.

Following is my interview with Mr. Honing.

IC: Bart, you founded TapVision with the goal of innovating on behalf of blind and partially sighted people. How did you come up with the idea of helping visually-impaired people through technology? 

BH: TapVision started in 2011. I was working at UL (formerly Collis) as a technical consultant and service manager. During several projects (for instance in Berlin working at the German health care card implementation) I came into contact with NFC technology. Through my work, I learned how NFC technology and how it can be implemented in public transport or banking environments. This knowledge about the technology itself wasn’t the actual trigger to implement software that utilizes NFC technology. The actual idea came to me because my wife lost her sight a few years ago. During these years I have encountered many blind people who were either starting to use or have been trying to use technology to improve their daily life. We’ve seen a great improvement lately with greater accessibility — for instance with mobile devices, and this is a great advance in improving visually disabled people’s level of independence. 

However, I did notice a missing link every single time — the link between the physical and digital world. For people who can view the world around them, the link comes intuitive. At TapVision we believe that someone with no or poor eyesight can be helped by creating an easy-to-use link between the online and offline environment. With greater ease of use comes a greater level of Independence and more confidence in your own abilities. This is key to our philosophy; we believe in abilities and not in disabilities!

IC: Can you please tell us how TapVision helps the visually impaired? How are people using your solution? What kinds of interactions does TapVision facilitate at home?  At work?

BH: Our goal is to create a set of tools that can be used in both the  personal and professional environment. A personal example is your wardrobe. You see the type of clothes that you have and the brands that you have bought them from. The actual “seeing” of a brand might trigger you to go online and by a new shirt, a new set of shoes, or to find a matching trouser. For a visually disabled person, these steps are a challenge that needs to be overcome. A blind person might know and actually find the shirt that he or she is looking for, but this in itself is already a challenge. Then they might know what the fashionable combination is, but finding this takes a lot of time and in many cases help from a seeing person. 

TapVision helps by allowing a blind person to use NFC tags and attach them to an item that they want to be able to re-identify later. It is also important to state what we don’t intend to do. We do not aim to develop a universal product recognition tool or a screen reading tool. In our experience we already see very decent software on the market that will take care of these tasks. What we do want to do is enable a blind person to use NFC tags after they have identified a document, garment or any other object that they want to easily re-identify and label it. 

The label itself, of course, needs to be programmed with the information that the user wants to preserve. We currently are working on computer-based software that uses a standard USB NFC reader to program a NFC tag. In this setup, we see that we are combining existing accessibility software and that with TapVision’s software we can create a very accessible tool which enables the user to store information on various types of NFC tags. 

Application of the NFC to f a document can be easy with NFC stickers, but for garments we need of a type of NFC tag that can be easily be applied. After applying a NFC tag the user needs to be able to read the content of the tag. For this we use both desktop computer software and a mobile application on handsets (which we are working on) to support both text-to-speech and NFC functionality. 

In the future, we want to expand on linking the digital and physical world by allowing the user to use the programmed tag as a starting point to access more information on companies, contacts or brands. This is where we see real added value for the user.

IC: How do you see NFC contributing to quality of life for the visually impaired?

BH: The greatest benefit is that the user does not have to come up with a complex home-grown system for finding the object they are looking for. This will empower the user more confident in his or her choice if the document or product they are holding in their hands is the right one. This added confidence combined with greater independence for a visually-impaired person makes him or her even more valuable and comfortable, for instance, in a working environment. In the personal environment, the main benefit comes from more easily accessible information giving the user more freedom of choice.

IC: What are the advantages of using NFC over other wireless technologies? Are there disadvantages?

BH: One of the challenges we are working on is security. Tagging important documents or personal objects doesn’t only make them easier for the user to find; there are challenges with the privacy of the content programmed on the tag that needs to be resolved. The great benefit of NFC is the fact that it does require some sort of proximity to use which is mostly the case when a blind person is trying to identify an item by touch. In comparison to a barcode, the user does not actually need to pinpoint the exact spot to allow the information to be read. Other wireless technologies usually require interaction from both the receiving and sending part of the technology; and this is not as much the case with NFC tags. You hold the tag and reader together and they start communicating.

IC: Do you see more opportunities for NFC enabling those who are physically challenged? Will TapVision look at expanding its services in the near future? If so, how?

BH: We see NFC as a technology with a lot of promise, but also a lot of compromise. Compromises in accessibility of information are especially the case in healthcare solutions where NFC can be used in health care cards or document and sample identification.  

TapVision — even though it started a while back—hasn’t left the start-up phase. This mainly is due to our available resources. But we are committed and believe in the fact that we can make this technology work in an assistive way to improve people’s lives and increase the amount of ability a blind person has. We hope to find investors that can enable us to really move ahead.

We are seeing more companies delivering solutions through NFC that help people with disabilities or other challenges. Over the past few months, we’ve seen a pilot program in a major hospital in the United States.  And just this past week, Advanced Health & Care and GENTAG, Inc.,  announced a fully integrated wireless near field communication feature cell phone to remotely monitor care worker visits in private homes. And while traditionally, we’ve seen NFC can be leveraged in areas such as marketing and loyalty programs, mobile wallet and payment uses, identification, gaming and social networking, it is exciting to see how the technology can be used to really make a real impact in people’s lives. We hope to see the development of more NFC-based solutions like this that can really change the way we see things.

[Editor’s note: As we have discovered companies like TapVision while promoting and producing the NFC Bootcamp educational program over the past couple of years, we’ve realized that there is a void in the marketplace for nurturing and mentoring companies working on the next big idea in NFC-enabled solutions.  To that end, we’ve recently launched the first mentor-driven/mentor-funded near field communication incubator, AccelerateNFC. Applications for the inaugural session are now open.  We look forward to seeing the exciting ideas and successes of new companies launched from this accelerator.]

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