Mobe hackathon contest spits out Wi-Fi-by-bonk app wonder

Developer hothouse sucks cash out of NFC

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Updated The weekend's NFC hackathon turned out 17 working applications, 16 of which could just about have been done with barcodes, and one which will see two strangers going into business together.

The event was sponsored by mobile PR outfit* Isobar** and Telefonica (under its O2 brand), and took place at Shoreditch Studios – proudly proclaimed as being "just up the road from Silicon Roundabout". The 65 attendees split themselves into 20 teams and spent 28 hours programming away.

Each team then had three minutes in which to present the completed application, 17 of the teams managing to last the course. Some of the ideas were very clever, some of them could have been done with barcodes, and one revolved around the gamification of taking drugs.

Despite Visa being one of the sponsors, no one was very interested in financial applications, in fact the category had no entrants at all and Visa's prize (tickets to Olympic trials) had to be given to a retail entry which looked a bit financial.

That entry proposed an NFC-equipped video billboard, enabling users to tap the tag and interact with content on the big screen once they had downloaded the application over their cellular connection.

It was an impressive demo, but the NFC tag simply provided a link to the appropriate URL, reducing the technology to an easy-to-use version of a QR Code. Not that there's anything wrong with replacing QR Codes, but it seemed like overkill which risked limiting the potential market.

Similar accusations could be levelled at the NFC-enabled restaurant menu, which provided an electronic version of itself (from the cloud) customised depending on the pre-programmed preferences of the user, or the collectible card game which enabled electronic versions of cards to appear on the phone's screen but still required all the data to be loaded from the internet.

Pushing the concept beyond what a QR Code could do – but only just – was the team that came up with PillIt, an application providing token rewards to those who took their prescription drugs at the right time. The PillIt team envisioned NFC built into pill bottles, and asking the user to tap against the bottle when taking the pill.

That's a technique which already exists, though, to be fair, PillIt probably didn't know that and the team took the concept further by picking up the dosage and schedule from an NFC-enabled prescription, and rewarding those who remember to take their pills with on-screen trophies (to be shared on Facebook, natch).

There was even the possibility of vouchers if suitable promotions can be discovered. PillIt won't make anyone take their drugs, but it might help them remember to, and it would be tough to replicate with a QR Code.

Wi-Fi-by-bonk app scoops £10k

But impossible to replicate with a printed code was the entry of Blue Butterfly team. The team programmed an NFC tag with the username and password for the local Wi-Fi network, and then wrote an Android application which configures the device with a bonk.

Designed for deployment in pubs and cafes, it restricts access to those prepared to enter the premises (no lurking outside for free Wi-Fi) and simplifies configuration without requiring any new infrastructure or locking out legacy users.

Blue Butterfly even scored £10K seed funding to develop the idea from proximity specialists Proxama, though how they'll spend it remains to be seen.

The Blue Butterfly team consists of two chaps who hadn't met until they arrived at the event, and come from different worlds (one web developer from London, the other a UEA student from Norwich), but the result is just the kind of synchronicity that one hopes an event of this type will bring about.

And the event did see lots of people thinking hard about what NFC could do: any lack of innovation was down to the limits of the technology rather than any lack of verve on the part of the participants.

The limited interest in financial applications is indicative of the maturity of the industry, which has pretty much worked out how NFC fits in and left little space for newcomers, but NFC is about a lot more than proximity payments even if the majority of applications just use the technology as a jumped-up barcode.

All of this is music to the ears of Kovio, another sponsor, and one which has been pushing the NFC Forum to extend the standard to include support for its "RF Barcode" which can be printed rather than manufactured. Applications which don't need the two-way read/write capability of NFC could make use of the much cheaper printed technology and rely on the ubiquitous cloud to provide the data.

Kovio is confident that the Forum will approve its extension, which it claims is only a firmware upgrade to NFC handsets already in production, and could be the lift that NFC needs if its going to go mainstream.

That's important because for all the enthusiasm, back-slapping and general good cheer among the strung-out devs at Create London, the fact is that NFC still lacks a killer feature: the thing which will make users walk into a shop and ask for an NFC handset.

Gamified drug-taking won't do that, and neither will self-configuring Wi-Fi networks. And unless something more compelling turns up, it's going to be a very long haul before we get to play with this stuff for real. ®

* Isobar has been in touch to say it's not a "PR outfit", but a "digital creative agency network", and that the whole event was its idea – O2 just chipped in some cash. The Vulture apologies for any confusion caused and hope that makes things clear.

** Further to its earlier comment, Isobar has further engaged with us, thanking us for adding the note, but adding the plea: "it would be amazing if you would be able to amend in the copy, though ... that note makes us sound really pedantic (which we're not), and I just wanted to make sure you have your facts right". We're happy to have cleared that up.

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