Courtesy of Shunkosha

Near-field communication — which turns your phone into your fares, ads, and more — has shown both promise and problems.

As if Tokyo subway cars didn't have enough ads already, the printing company Shunkosha stuck one onto hanging straps earlier this month. They call the ad "Strappy." But Strappy isn't your typical inanimate advertisement. Rather, it's an interactive ad that communicates with your phone.

When riders touch their smartphones to Strappy, a browser pops up with an advertisement, coupon, video, or whatever other marketing device companies choose to employ. For the trial run, which recently took place on Tokyo's Ginza and Marunouchi lines, Strappy sent ads to passengers from the travel agency H.I.S.

Setting aside for a moment the question of why Tokyo subway riders would choose to subject themselves to more ads — we'll let some Japanese sociologist tackle that one — Strappy may very well represent the future of urban transport technology. The device works through the use of near-field communication, or NFC, a short-range wireless connection that can turn a smartphone into an advertisement, sure, but also into a transit fare, a service update, a time-table, a customer service report, and more.

NFC industry professionals think the technology can have the biggest impact on ticketing. Travelers could use their phones as fare cards or store long-distance tickets without fear of losing them. Since the technology is two-way, receipts could be sent back to riders as soon as they enter a gate or complete a journey. Transit agencies, meanwhile, could benefit from reduced operational costs and fare evasion, and increased efficiency and environmental sustainability.

The potential uses extend beyond the turnstile. By tapping their phones to signs posted around stations and platforms, riders could get updated service information, request assistance or directions, or report problems or lost items. NFC might also enhance the value of local advertisements in transit stations, since riders could download promotions to nearby retailers.

(These and other advantages were outlined during a presentation of "NFC in Public Transport" [PDF] at an NFC Forum last year.)

A number of cities have tested, and in some cases implemented, NFC for their transit systems. Riders responded well to a ticketing trial on the London Tube in 2007, during which Nokia phones replaced the usual Oyster fare cards. The German rail authority Deutsche Bahn ran a successful Touch&Travel program for intercity trains between Berlin, Cologne, Dusseldorf, and Frankfurt, and is now considering wider installation.

In 2008, the fast-food outlet Jack in the Box partnered with San Francisco transit authority BART for an NFC trial that combined ridership with retail. By touching their phones to "Smart Posters" inside stations, passengers received directions to the nearest Jack in the Box outlet:

Tokyo's transport system already employs NFC to facilitate its remarkable level of integration. Metro riders can use their NFC-embedded Pasmo card to enter the fare gates, buy a snack at a station vendor, even take a taxi home. And Japan Rail passengers can present bullet train tickets to gate attendants using their phones.

Other cities aren't quite convinced the technology has (if you will) arrived. Last month an official with Transport for London said NFC readers didn't work fast enough for the Tube, reports PC World. Evidently a change in standards since the successful 2007 trial has reduced reader speed below the ideal 500-millisecond mark.

In April, Boston's transit authority, the M.B.T.A., launched the first smartphone ticketing system in the United States. But the Wall Street Journal reported that the Masabi company, which runs the system, will use barcodes rather than near-field communication because the "technology isn't in place yet to support it." A bit of a shame, since "Barcodey" just doesn't have the same ring.

Images courtesy of Shunkosha [PDF(top) and via "NFC in Public Transport" [PDF] (inset).

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