Part nail art, part biohack, these NFC nail stickers from Pimoroni are awesomely cyberpunk. Each sticker is a tiny flexible circuit that contains an NFC antenna and a tiny LED; when placed near an NFC signal, the LED lights up. This ultra-compact package, with no battery or exposed wiring, is a perfect fit for nail art!
NFC, or near-field communication, is a subset of RFID technology. Electronic devices with NFC capabilities can communicate with each other wirelessly across a distance of about 4 cm or less. This technology is used for contactless payment systems like Apple Pay and Android Pay, and for ID badge entry systems. Many smartphones now come with NFC capabilities, and makers have been using NFC components with Arduino to build creative projects, like keyless locks and password vaults. NFC technology is spreading quickly as an easy and secure way to pass data from one device to another, but power can be transmitted as well. That’s how these LED nail stickers work: power comes from the electromagnetic field generated by an NFC signal.
For £5, you get one hand’s worth: five nail stickers with one LED on each. All five stickers are the same size: 11 mm long by 9 mm wide. This size should fit well on most adult thumbnails, but using these on smaller nails will be a challenge. They’ll fit easily on larger acrylic nails, which is how we’ve seen similar products styled. Applying the stickers was fairly easy, though it took a few tries to get a smooth application. In our tests, we secured the stickers with several coats of clear gel polish, which held nicely for about five days. Without a coating, the adhesive held for about 24 hours, before peeling up around the edges. A few drops of acetone easily removed the sticker, which is not reusable.
When lit, the LEDs are bright for their tiny size, but they definitely look best in low-light situations. Placing the stickers near an NFC device, like a smartphone with NFC enabled, makes the LED shine nicely. However, if you don’t have an NFC smartphone, you’ll have to find NFC fields out in the world to wave your hand in front of. This means your nails may only glow when you’re paying for something at a store, or badging in at your office. If you’re out for a day of shopping, this could actually be pretty often – you can bask in the glow of your manicure whenever you check out at a ‘tap to pay’ machine.
Of course, we’re makers, so naturally we decided to build our own NFC station. For this, Pimoroni suggests using the stickers with an RFID/NFC shield for Arduino (£40) from Adafruit. We paired the shield with an Arduino Uno. With some handy code from Adafruit’s quick-start guide, we had our own NFC reader up and running: passing the stickers within 2.5 cm of the shield made the LEDs glow satisfyingly bright. The shield is about 54 mm by 118 mm, and is not designed for wearable applications, so if you’re thinking of cosplaying with these nail stickers, you’ll have to cleverly build the Arduino and shield into some kind of hand-held prop, like a book. The LEDs need to be very close to the antenna on the shield to glow, and too much material over the antenna can obstruct the field, making this a challenging application.
It’s important to know that these NFC stickers cannot be written to or read – they simply light up when placed inside an NFC field. This may feel like a bit of a dead end, but they could still be useful as wireless lights in projects. If nail art isn’t your thing, you could stick these to objects, or even embed them in resin. As long as the sticker can be placed near an NFC signal, the LED should light up, and the effect is magical.
Pimoroni £5 shop.pimoroni.com
Cyberpunk jewellery, NFC field-seeker, or pure curiosity. These stickers are great fun and easy to use.
Tinkering with these nail stickers sparked our curiosity about NFC and RFID, and this author really enjoyed hunting down NFC fields while out and about. It was a sci-fi moment every time the LED lit up, and it revealed many invisible electromagnetic fields we pass through every day. While the stickers are a bit of a novelty without the ability to hold or transmit data, their low price and high impact makes it easy and exciting to get started with NFC and wearables.