Forget wallets. What else is NFC good for?

Near-field communication (NFC) has been trashed by critics, who say it adds no value to consumers or is a technology in search of a need. But as we’ve pointed out, NFC is just a technology that can applied in a lot of different ways, apart from the digital wallet framework through which many people understand it.

Increasingly, we’re seeing more and more interesting projects and applications being built that show how NFC will be deployed outside of mobile payment situations. This not only indicates how flexible the technology is but also could help propel the overall technology in adoption, as consumers become aware of NFC and learn to use it for a variety of reasons.

Right now, NFC is still below the radar for most U.S. consumers, and the slow roll out of Google Wallet (s goog) or the pending launch of Isis next year are, by themselves, only going to accelerate NFC adoption by so much. But having a host of uses for the technology could open people’s eyes and push them past any usability or safety concerns.

Here’s a look at some of recent interesting developments:

  • San Francisco announced earlier this week it was partnering with PayByPhone to enable 30,000 parking meters with NFC support. People can tap their phone against a parking meter and call up a parking application that identifies the parking location and allows the driver to enter his or her desired parking time and complete the transaction. The actual payment happens inside the app with a stored credit card, but the technology provides a short cut to the transaction.
  • Intel (s intc) and MasterCard (s ma) have teamed up to enable future Intel-powered laptops to work with PayPass enabled MasterCard credit cards. Users will be able to enter in their payment credentials for online purchases by tapping their card on their computer instead of storing the information on their machine or entering it manually.
  • Personal contact and content sharing has become one of the emerging uses for NFC. RIM (s rimm) in October introduced BlackBerry Tag, which will enable users of NFC phones to exchange contact information, documents, URLs, photos and other multimedia content with a tap of their phones. Google has enabled a similar a solution with Android Beam, which will work on NFC-enabled phones. This can serve as a Bump-like way to pass back and forth information quickly.
  • Access card maker HID Global announced a trial with Arizona State University in September in which students were provided NFC-enabled phones, enabling them to gain physical access to buildings. All the participants were able to enter residence halls with their phones, and some were also allowed to open individual room doors using unique digital key and PINs.
  • The Museum of London and its sister institution, the Museum of London Docklands launched a project in August that allows visitors to tap their NFC-enabled phone at exhibits and gain more information, buy tickets to future exhibits or check in, follow or “like” the museums on social services. It’s part of Nokia’s NFC Hub (s nok) effort to help businesses set up NFC campaigns.
  • T-Mobile partnered with Meridian Health and iMPak Health in October on a new SleepTrak sleep monitoring system, a wearable device with an NFC-equipped card. Users can upload their sleep data to an NFC-enabled Nokia astound with a tap.
  • Nokia and NFC Danmark launched NFC-enabled smart poster campaign in Telia stores in Denmark, enabling Nokia N9 users to download mobile apps by tapping on a poster. The two companies also introduced what Danmark called the world’s first NFC-enabled vending machine.
  • The winning application of the WIMA NFC USA conference in San Francisco earlier this month was a project called Think&Go, which is being tested by French supermarket chain Groupe Casino. Think&Go allows visually impaired and elderly shoppers to call up large text information on products by tapping NFC tags on store shelves.

These are just a sample of the projects and real applications leveraging NFC. As you can see, none of them are actual mobile wallets. The biggest thing they provide is a real short cut to information and actions that can happen without much work. Many of these things can be done through QR codes, bumping, Bluetooth or other methods, but NFC provides a very simple and often elegant way to get through the process.

Also, in some of these cases, what’s also nice is that since they aren’t trying to conduct sensitive transactions, they don’t need to access the secure element inside a phone. That could be a limiting factor in the roll out of NFC, because the owners of the secure element, often the carriers, don’t seem to be in a hurry to enable a lot of other NFC payments systems. But with a host of other non payment uses emerging, users won’t have to wait to find out if their digital wallet is enabled on their particular phone. There might be other ways they can experience the power of NFC first. That will help in just teaching people the practice of tapping for information, transactions and access.

We’re still very early in the NFC game and the phones are just now trickling out in the U.S. But there’s going to be a much bigger flow of NFC-equipped phones starting next year. It’ll be these broader applications that might convince users that the technology has merit.