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Biometrics are here: The crazy ways you're going to be paying in the future

Move over, James Bond. In the not-so-distant future, you might be paying for things using the veins in the palm of your hand. (Thankfully, it doesn’t hurt.)
Image: Biometric finger scan
The vast majority of people — 86% — are interested in using biometrics to verify their identities to make payments, according to a survey by Visa.iStockphoto / Getty Images

Fingerprints, your voice, your face, the pattern of veins in the palm of your hand and even the colored pattern in your iris: All of these are being used in biometrics, the analysis of unique physical characteristics to verify identity. For decades, we watched Bond villains and Hollywood heads of state use these impressively futuristic methods to further their quests for world domination, but today we’re using them to buy coffee. (Take that, Jason Bourne!)

Many of us have already used Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, which both use fingerprint scanners, or Mastercard’s “selfie pay” that uses facial recognition technology, and those forms of payment are here to stay, says Majd Maksad, founder and CEO of Status Money, a personal finance management site. But biometrics are about to get a lot more exciting.

“There’s a ton of innovation happening in the space, and we’re starting to see an accelerated pace of development compared to the last decade or so, when plastic has been king. It’s safe to say that the future is now.”

Here's a look at what’s ahead for the average consumer and how biometrics are going to impact our daily lives even more than they do now.

The biometrics of today are already all around us

The vast majority of people — 86% — are interested in using biometrics to verify their identities to make payments, according to a survey by Visa. Why? People don’t like using passwords. They’re cumbersome and easy to forget, and biometrics can simplify the process, explains Mark Nelsen, senior vice president of Risk Products at Visa.

Right now, biometrics are predominantly being used for mobile payments, both online and in-store. With the in-store method, commonly known as “contactless technology,” your fingerprint unlocks your phone, and you tap your phone on the merchant’s POS (point-of-sale) reader. In an instant, you’ve verified that you’re the genuine owner of the device, and your payment has been sent securely to the merchant, Nelsen explains. Currently, more than 1 million stores in the U.S. have contactless technology.

When you’re online, the same basic process occurs, only there’s no need to tap your phone on a reader, and depending on your device, you can use either facial recognition or your fingerprint to confirm you’re you. In some places, such as Europe and Latin America, users may be “challenged” to confirm their identities by texting in selfies. The next time you enroll as a new customer somewhere (particularly a financial institution, like a bank) you could be asked to sign up with your picture, giving the merchant the confidence that it can always verify you are who you say you are, Nelsen explains.

Those of us with a new iPhone X have probably unlocked our phones 1,000 times without giving much thought to Apple’s facial recognition sensor, “TrueDepth.” The technology uses 30,000 points of infrared light to calculate the exact depth and angle of your facial features. “It’s looking at mathematical equations that measure the distance in points on your face, from your eyes to your lips to your ears,” Nelsen says. “Those dimensions stay the same regardless of what your hair may look like on a given day, or weight loss or weight gain.”

Of course biometrics aren’t only used for purchases. Walt Disney World park-goers are already familiar with the bracelets — “MagicBands”— that serve as as your ticket and track your movements when you’re inside the amusement park, explains Jeff Taylor, founder and managing partner of Digital Risk, a provider of quality control and compliance solutions. The flexible plastic bracelets work with RFID chip technology, and also serve as hotel room keys and as your means of accessing the Fastpass+ “cut-the-line” service.

The biometrics of tomorrow are going to make things even easier (plus they’re really cool)

Over the next decade, biometrics are poised for the most growth in physical locations, or in-store, Maksad says, but there are a few barriers to entry. The first is that the value proposition to consumers is unclear— it’s almost just as quick to use a credit card as it is to take out a mobile phone and tap it on a POS reader. The second is that retailers will have to retrofit all their stores with POS systems equipped to read consumers’ phones, which will be incredibly costly, Maksad explains.

“One motivator for merchants could be a better user experience,” he says. “There’s clearly a benefit to Whole Foods, for example, for them to be faster and speed up their lines by 15 or 20 minutes every hour, but we’re still five to 10 years away from seeing a full-scale roll-out in big box stores nationwide.”

Invisible transactions — like the kind you have with Uber where the payment is embedded into the service via a stored credit card— is the “holy grail” for merchants, Maksad says. “You never even think about the payment, you get in, get out, and it’s completely seamless.” More merchants are pioneering technologies like this, such as Amazon with “Amazon Go,” a concept shop that was tested in Seattle earlier this year. To make a purchase, customers only needed to check in with their Amazon apps when they arrived, and then they could take what they wanted from the store without having to check out or physically make a payment.

A supermarket in the UK called Co-op is also testing an app that lets customers scan the items they want as they shop, paying for them instantly — again, no cashier required. “With all of these options, the verification of your ID is performed somewhere in the background, you choose your items, and you’re good to go,” Maksad says.

Technology that tracks our movements — like Disney’s MagicBands — will also be a big part of our biometric future, Taylor says. Movement and behavior-tracking technology will one day be able to make recommendations for us based on our past decisions, resulting in improved life experiences. “Your tracking bracelet could send you an email saying, ‘Hey, that restaurant you tried to go to yesterday that had a two-hour wait only has a 10-minute wait now.’” Taylor says. “Overall, we’re going to be living in a more customized world where things come easier, and we get customized recommendations for things we might never have heard of otherwise.”

Voice recognition is another big area where we’ve only just scratched the surface, Nelsen says. “Today, we have Alexa and Siri, but tomorrow you may be using the iris scanner in your rear-view mirror to confirm your identity and start your car, and then giving a voice-command to your vehicle to order a pizza while you’re driving home. “In the next decade, wherever you are when you want to make a purchase, there will be some type of biometric-enabled option.”

With Kathryn Tuggle


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