NFC tags are programmed with just about any sort of information and then plopped into almost any product, letting you read them with a smartphone or another NFC-capable device.

Courtesy NFC Forum

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Soon, your entire world could become a digitally immersive experience. Imagine it -- a physical version of the Web, one in which everything (and maybe everyone) has a digital signature. You'll have instant access to information about products, services, landmarks and even people, all thanks to near field communication (NFC) technologyand the smart tags that work with NFC.

NFC isn't a fundamentally groundbreaking technology. Like Bluetooth and WiFi, it's a wireless radio communications standard. In the wireless world, NFC's closest relative is actually RFID (radio frequency identification). Retailers and parcel shipping companies in particular love RFID as a way to keep tabs on inventory supplies and shipments. You can read all about it in How RFID Works.

NFC is a lot like RFID, only it's a more up-close-and-personal type of wireless. Whereas RFID can be used from a distance, NFC readers work at a maximum range of about 4 inches (10 centimeters). NFC readers aren't suitable for RFID-style inventory tracking; their range is too short. So NFC tags will appear in a flood of products and promotional items where bits of digitized information might come in handy.

Unlike RFID versions, NFC readers aren't always specialized devices. As a matter of fact, NFC chips will be incorporated right into your smartphone's circuitry. About 20 percent of phones worldwide might have NFC capabilities by 2014 [source: Juniper]. With the widespread reach of NFC phones, NFC tags could one day become as commonplace as bar codes.

For example, a smart tag could be embedded into a political flyer. Tap the tag, and you're directed to a Web site touting a candidate's credentials. At the same time, you also instantly receive a snappy biography in the form of a text file and image.

Or, at your favorite restaurants, you can touch your phone to an NFC tagged menu and voila -- you have the entire menu on your phone, along with nutritional information and mouth-watering descriptions of the ingredients in your favorite dishes.

When it comes to the potential uses of NFC tags, there are no limits. But what exactly gives an NFC tag its enchanting powers? On the next page, we'll tell you.