Hackaday Dictionary: Near Field Communications (NFC)

You are at the corner store, buying gum. The cashier rings up the purchase, showing you the amount. You casually pull out your cell phone and wave it near the credit card machine, which beeps appreciatively. The cashier nods, and you walk out, stuffing gum into your face. What just happened? You used Near Field Communications (NFC) to send data between your phone and the credit card terminal.

NFC is a standard that allows two devices to exchange information over a short distance without being in physical contact. The two devices communicate using a weak magnetic field that, in theory, only has a range of a few centimeters, so both devices have to be physically close, and someone standing nearby can’t intercept or alter the signal.

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Hackaday Dictionary: The ESP8266

In August of 2014, something new started showing up in the markets of Shenzen, the hi-tech area of China where the majority of the world’s electronics components are made. This is the ESP8266, a WiFi SoC (System on a Chip) that can connect to 802.11b/g/n networks on the 2.4GHz band. It can be addressed with SPI or a serial connection, and has an AT command set that makes it behave rather like an old-style modem. Basically, it has everything you would need to connect a device to a WiFi network, with the ESP8266 chip itself handling the complicated business of finding, joining and transmitting/receiving over a WiFi network.

That’s nothing particularly new in itself: WiFi connection devices like the TI CC3000 have been around for longer, and do much the same thing. The difference was the price. While the TI solution costs about $10 if you buy several thousand of them, the ESP8266 costs less than $7 for an individual board that can plug straight into an Arduino or similar. Buy the chip in bulk, and you can get it for less than $2.

The ESP8266 is more than just a WiFi dongle, though: it is a fully fledged computer in itself, with a megabyte of flash memory and a 32-bit processor that uses a RISC architecture. This can run applications, turning the ESP8266 into a standalone module that can collect and send data over the Internet. And it can do this while drawing a reasonably low amount of power: while receiving data, it typically uses just 60mA, and sending data over an 802.11n connection uses just 145mA. That means you can drive it from a small battery or other small power source, and it will keep running for a long time.

It wasn’t an easy ship to write applications for in the early days, though: it was poorly documented and required a dedicated toolchain to work with. This made it more of a challenge than many hackers were comfortable with.  That changed earlier this year, though, when the Arduino IDE (Integrated Development Environment) was ported to the chip. This meant that you could use the much easier to write Arduino functions and libraries to write code for the chip, bringing it within reach of even the most casual hacker.

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