Contactless is hot right now but what will wearable payment interactions look like by 2020? That's the question Visa Europe asked of five design students and recent graduates of Central Saint Martins with the final three concepts set to be revealed tonight at Visa's Technology Partner Forum in Holborn, London.
The MA Industrial Design students and young designers - Marta Monge, Maxime Moreaux, Gareth Ladley, Marina Mellado and Bronka de Sage - worked under the guidance of CSM lecturer Silas Grant and programme director for product, ceramic and industrial design, Nick Rhodes to produce visual prototypes of wearables that focus on payments from the ground up. The results are fresh, thoughtful and pay careful attention to the day to day psychology of how we spend and manage our money.
Emotional, useful and social tech payments
It's seldom that people feel an emotional connection to a bank card
"These designs emphasise different aspects and values," Rhodes told Wareable ahead of the unveiling. "Those values are: How good is this as a utility to me? How expressive is it for me or symbolically what is it saying about me as an object? What sort of pleasures is it providing in its use? There is a very strong conceptual, sociological link between the body, identity, security, payment and value."
Nick Mackie, Visa Europe's head of contactless, explained that Visa's "intense interest" in wearable tech payments - indeed, it is the headline act of the Partner Forum - has grown out of an appreciation that wearable, personal form factors "breed an intimacy that has never really been seen before in the banking world, it's seldom that people feel an emotional connection to a bank card." He also sees payments as, simply, a way of making wearables truly useful.
"For a lot of wearable devices adding a payment capability like Apple Pay adds a usefulness to it," he said. "Usefulness translates into the extent to which the device is worn. Those that don't deliver that correct level of utility can often find themselves in sock drawers. Our view is that by 2020, it may be the case that many wearable tech devices will have some form of payment capability."
The three CSM concepts - Budgeteer, Small Change and Thread - explore wearable tech experiences that are useful, express personal identity and provide small everyday pleasures. There are no plans to develop any of the ideas into fully fledged products but the aim is inspire Visa's partners and to unlock new ways of thinking in the wearable payments space.
Budgeteer is attached to the wrist as a constant, physical reminder of what you are spending money on. It aims to help the scatterbrained among us to keep on top of our spending and not just guess as we go along.
When a payment is made, you make one of three hand gestures to allocate the expense to one of three categories - for instance, 'home', 'work' and 'me'. The system could highlight transactions in different colours on your online statements and even be used to quickly switch between different cards or accounts, all through discreet gestures. In other words, no more fumbling around in front of the cashier while doing mental gymnastics or logging in to your phone's banking app. Another nice touch is that the electronics are visible, adding to the cyborg-like visual appeal.
"There are real pleasures and reassurances in what a device like Budgeteer would offer," noted CSM's Nick Rhodes. "One of the things that's great about physical money is that you can pile it into little sections; that's for rent, that's for clothes, this is for fun. And that physicality hasn't gone from our culture, we're still physical creatures. It's a relatively simple thing but it's about control and reassurance over your budgeting."
The wrist worn Small Change wearable is wonderful in its simplicity. The device, which itself looks like a coin from the future, is designed to do away with exactly that - the shrapnel that hangs around in your pockets or purses.
The Central Saint Martins students note that in 2020, cash will still account for a third of all transactions and right now, there are 28 billion coins in circulation in the UK alone. Essentially, we are in a period of transition and it will take time to make the leap to digital money.
In 2020, we can receive our 'change' via a Small Change device instead of physical coins. It is loaded up with digital money and will help our future selves to manage small amounts of money from in-store payments. An e-ink display shows a progress dial of the funds available, not to mention the fact that it's much lighter and more hygienic than carrying around a bunch of twenty pence coins.
"I think this is quite an acute observation of the interim period we are going to be going through, when we start to ease away from coinage and small change, maybe in the longer term pretty much entirely from cash," said Rhodes. "It's offering a benefit for the user - you don't have the shrapnel lying around. It's probably a benefit to the retailer - they don't need to carry so much change. And it's still exchangeable. You can give some of your credits to your kid for pocket money. You can help a child understand budgeting in a very fundamental and basic way."
Finally, Thread brings together a number of physical and digital interactions into one experience. As Visa Europe's Nick Mackie puts it, the Central Saint Martins designers created lots of "modular solutions" that could be snapped together to address a real, human problem with one concept.
Firstly, Thread is a contactless payment device aimed at the fashion conscious - it has a removable part with a biometric finger vein scanner to take care of the payments in store. That's the simple part. The smart brooch doesn't just handle payments, though, it also keeps a record of clothes purchases and brands. When a passerby sees the trendsetting shopper wearing a Thread wearable they can scan them via a smartphone camera and AR app to find out where their dress or shoes are from, see purchase histories and rate individual items or users.
It's a really credible system that could blend the physical world with the digital world, something many developers and hardware manufacturers have tried and failed to do.
"It is turning the street into a living catwalk and living Pinterest," Rhodes explained. "Thread amplifies what we are already getting in the digital space with services like Pinterest and Instagram. So there's value in that for the observer. There's massive value in that for brands who are selling clothes because then every moment is an advertising opportunity. And for the wearer they can accrue credits, or loyalty scheme points by that means in return for discounts, VIP tickets, private views. So the more they get seen, the more they get checked out, the better it is. The business proposition is really strong here."
Payments are a solid bet for wearables
We might not see any of the Central Saint Martins concepts on shopper's wrists any time soon but for Visa, it is confident that secure payments can - and will - be made using every type of wearable from a simple chip in a bPay-style band to an Apple Watch wrist computer and everything in between.
"We deliberately wanted the CSM students to think of slightly wacky, slightly far off ideas so it would help us contrast to the nearer term and the current solutions that are being developed," said Visa Europe's Nick Mackie. "Some were maybe too far off and far fetched, not from a technological point of view but from a Visa point of view, that they wouldn't quite fit with us. We wouldn't be able to put our colours on the mast, as it were."
In the next two to five years, then, Mackie is looking to established players not just in the tech industry but also in the traditional watch and jewellery industries.
"Do you need to embed the tech you might find in an Apple Watch or an Android Wear watch into a traditional watch or piece of jewellery for it to enable payments? Obviously the answer to that is no," he said. "So could you have a watch that doesn't need to be charged or you need to replace the battery every couple of years - which you have to do anyway - but that can make sophisticated electronic payments? Absolutely, that's possible and we're working with companies at the moment to do that."