Your online orders could start shipping in NFC-enabled smart packaging

You may eventually be able to inspect food at the supermarket just by tapping it with your phone. The NFC Forum — the group behind the short-range wireless standard — said today that it has partnered with the Active & Intelligent Packaging Industry Association to help develop smart packaging for food and other products.

The groups expect early examples to include “interactive tags and labels” that would pull up information about a product on your phone. The groups also say NFC-enabled time and temperature monitors could be put to early use, possibly allowing grocers to know how long a cut of meat has been sitting out and whether its temperature has been properly maintained.

Nearly every phone on the market supports NFC, so embedding NFC into product packaging opens up a lot of possibilities. Plenty of packaging already includes QR codes, but those don’t provide a very elegant experience: you need to have an app that reads QR codes, open that app, then scan the code before being directed to a webpage. With NFC, you’d theoretically be able to get the information with just a tap.

That said, NFC presents a lot more hurdles: QR codes can just be printed on a box, while NFC requires electronics and a battery. And while that’s all relatively cheap compared to everything else inside a smartphone, it’s probably pretty expensive compared to typical product packaging.

Those hurdles suggest that, at least for a while, NFC-enabled packaging will likely only be used in limited circumstances. It could be used on packaging for higher-end products, or it might be better used for bulk packaging, since it could give people handling inventory more information on what they’re working with, rather than for every individual package presented to customers in a store.

The two industry groups expect the day to come when NFC is useable for that kind of consumer application, though. They claim NFC-enabled packaging will increase “at a double-digit annual rate” until “NFC becomes more commercially feasible for large-volume consumer products instead of for primarily high-value goods.” Their hope is that smarter packaging will let companies “lower costs, reduce waste, and increase profitability.” Though, again, they’ll have to do that to a large enough extent to offset the costs of embedding NFC equipment and other sensors all over the place.

In addition to its partnership on smart packaging, the NFC Forum announced a second agreement today: one with the Wireless Power Consortium to make NFC work better with the Qi wireless charging standard. It’s not entirely clear how the two groups see the two standards working together, but they claim the partnership could lead to smaller and cheaper charging devices.