In the fall, Toronto resident Pearl Chen placed quarter-size stickers on the 30 or so spice containers in her kitchen. Now whenever she taps her Samsung smartphone against a bottle of turmeric, say, the device does a Google search for recipes featuring the spice. “I can scan it and get ideas for what to cook,” says Chen, 31, the founder of Karma Laboratory, a technology startup focused on education. She sees the stickers as a way to squeeze a bit more utility from everyday objects, which usually “just stand there and don’t say very much.”
Chen is an early adopter in the world of programmable tags, pieces of paper or plastic that sell for a few bucks apiece and communicate with gadgets via a short-range radio technology known as near field communication, or NFC. They can be customized to trigger an action on any phone with an NFC chip: Tap the phone against a tag on a business card to automatically download contact information, for instance, or tap a tag on your nightstand to set the morning alarm. “It’s very convenient,” says John Devlin, an analyst at ABI Research.