What if you could pay your subway fare or buy a pack of gum at the newsstand just by waving your phone over a pad? Wireless manufacturers have spent years experimenting with a short-range radio standard, Near Field Communications (NFC), that allows just this—and Sony’s version of the technology has been in use in Japan for the better part of a decade.
Back in 2011, a Y Combinator-backed startup called Tagstand made a bet that NFC technology was about to make its way to the U.S. market, and that it could be used for far more than digital payments. The company used programmable NFC tags and a free Android mobile app called Task Launcher to create contextual cues that activate or deactivate designated features on smartphones. A tag on the nightstand, for example, could prompt the phone to set an alarm for the next morning. One in the car could turn on Bluetooth for hands-free driving, and a tag in a conference room could put a phone on silent.
As it happens quite a few Android, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry smartphones now have built-in NFC functionality. But the technology still hasn’t become a widespread standard in the U.S., thanks in part to holdouts like Apple, which has declined to put NFC technology into the iPhone (it has opted instead for a standard called Bluetooth low energy).
As a result, Tagstand is expanding beyond its purely NFC-based roots, making Task Launcher sensitive to other kinds of cues from the surroundings. CEO Kulveer Taggar says he and his cofounders Srini Panguluri and Omar Seyal quickly realized that “we can gets someone’s context from more than a sticker,” he says. “What Wi-Fi network you’re connected to shows when you’re at work, so we can put your phone on silent. Then when you’re home, it turns back on. When your phone connects to Bluetooth, we can launch Google navigation.”
And recently they’ve added even more, including time, geo-sensing and battery level. Now your phone can launch an app to tell you when your bus is coming at the exact time you leave the house every day. There’s a low battery trigger to dim the phone’s display to save energy, and geo-sensing to trigger features based purely on location.
Expanding the trigger set makes it easier than ever for consumers to use Tagstand, Taggar says. Programming NFC tags isn’t that difficult, though Taggar admits that it’s the kind of thing that will probably appeal primarily to “power users.” But the change also widens the company’s technology base, especially given Apple’s ongoing disdain for NFC.
Apple is notoriously restrictive when it comes to its API, and Tagstand hasn’t been able to make a version of its app for the iPhone yet. But Taggar isn’t ruling out the possibility that it might eventually be able to. “We want to do something for iPhone so we’ll look at that,” he says.
He also doesn’t think Apple’s Bluetooth move means NFC is dead. The big use case for NFC was for payments, but Tagger says it was a mistake for the industry to focus on that application first. “If Google was going to put NFC in a phone, it should have done with transit. If I could just use my phone for transit or building access, people would have said, ‘This is cool.’ But starting with payments is a mistake. “
If mass-transit systems around the world accepted NFC payments, you might be able to use the same phone to pay for a BART ride in the Bay Area or on the subway systems in Tokyo or Moscow; no more picking up a new card or pass in every city. NFC “is super robust and widespread,” Taggar says. “I do think one day Apple going to have NFC. Can you imagine a world where you can use Android to access transit but not iPhone? Apple is doing what they always do, letting everyone else figure it out and then they’ll follow.”
But there is one part of NFC tech that the company might not hold onto forever: selling NFC tags. It was a way to jumpstart the Tagstand’s business, but “it’s not in our DNA to be able to do online retail,” he says. “We buy from China and sell them directly to consumers, but right now it’s all on autopilot. It’s not something we’re fixed on.”
The San Francisco-based startup is also working to make its technology more accessible to more casual users. Adding the extra triggers earlier this year fostered some growth in engagement, as the new prompts were even more passive than NFC stickers. But Tagstand has created something even easier for users—an app called Agent, which recently hit the Android store.
Task Launcher didn’t require its users to program anything, but it did require them to come up with their own use cases. It’s great for those who want to get creative, but it didn’t help potential users who wanted a set of options presented to them. Agent will do just that, making it easier than ever to use. Consumers will be able to pick and choose the features they want, like automatically turn off Bluetooth when battery levels drop below ten percent, or turn on driving mode once it accelerates past 25 miles per hour.
Taggar has been using the app to check into his boxing gym so that he can track his exercise, and to set up a notification when his green tea has been steeping for an optimal time of 2.5 minutes. The app also switches off his mobile data when he gets home, to save battery life and gigabytes.
Unlike Task Launcher, Agent isn’t free—it costs $2.99 in the Android store.
Tagstand is still a small company, with two cofounders and three employees. But Y Combinator made it pretty easy for Taggar and his cofounders to raise their $1.1 million in funding. It was also easier for Taggar because it was his second time through; he sold his first company, an e-commerce venture called Auctomatic.com , back in 2008. “Within a week of demo day, we had raised a million dollars,” he says. “Fundraising was much easier than if I hadn’t done YC.”
Next up after Agent? Finding a way to combine triggers. So when you’re on a certain Wi-Fi network at a certain time—say, still at work at 6 pm—NextBus can pop up to let you know how to get home “That’s going to be a bit of work for us, to get to that level of automation,” Taggar says.
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