Software & Web Development

Biometric Payments Set to Grow with Apple

The launch of the iPhone 6 and Apple Watch this month are sure signs that the best of biometric technology is yet to come in the retail sector.

Even before these new Apple devices were unveiled, wearable technology was entering the public consciousness, albeit as something between a health and fitness aid, a device for contactless payments and a fashion item. Now that Apple has entered the contactless payment field with some basic biometric security we are set to see substantial changes. Not only does Apple bring with it an army of 500 million iTunes subscribers, it has also introduced ApplePay, its secure mobile wallet system.

It was interesting to note that Apple stock fell on the announcement of the iPhone 6 and then rose when ApplePay was announced. Shrewd observers could see how this payment technology was going to kick-start the hitherto sluggish uptake of contactless payments through smart phones.

Previously Apple were criticised for having no near-field communication (NFC) payment capability on any of their devices. In the UK, NFC has been slow to catch on because some banks did not issue contactless cards and the maximum payment value is relatively low (£20). Many consumers still feel a greater sense of control when they use chip-and-pin cards for payments, while on the other hand, there are still unjustified fears that walking past a reader with a contactless card in your pocket could mean paying for something inadvertently.

But now the iPhone 6 and Apple Watch have features that will ripple through the entire retail sector. Despite having a relatively unsophisticated finger print recognition technology for contactless payment authentication, the iPhone 6 will make yet more consumers feel at ease with being identified by something other than a PIN or a password. Millions of consumers with iTunes accounts already trust Apple with another form of transaction, after all.

Yet from a slightly longer perspective it is the watch that could be more significant. It may not have biometric payment capability, but it does track the user’s unique heart rhythm. Since Apple have invested in a biometric research company, we can be fairly sure that the next step will be for them to include biometric payment technology in the watch, probably through monitoring of the user’s unique heartbeat pattern.

This is only one of the new biometric technologies that are ready for active service. UK banking giant Barclay’s are to introduce portable blood vessel pattern recognition for corporate customers next year, with a view to rolling out to consumers thereafter. The devices plug into computers and read the unique pattern of veins in a finger. For the UK this could be a highly significant move that alters attitudes.

The technology is already in use in countries including Japan and Poland. Fujitsu, for instance, employed vein-recognition in their palm-reading PulseWallet, now called Biyo.

The earliest adopters of biometric recognition technologies of this kind are likely to be businesses with a membership model and repeat visits from customers, such as gyms and health clubs. When customers sign up, the pattern of veins in a thumb or finger will be recorded so that every time they attend they simply apply their fingers to a reader and enter the premises without the need for a card.  Equally, the end of a till lane at a supermarket could have a biometric reader to automatically update customers’ accounts as they go through once they have identified themselves.

Further advances in wearable biometric technology will be revealed in the coming months when the market witnesses the launch of wrist bands that identify users by their heart rhythm. These devices can be programmed to make a payment (as long as retailer accepts the technology) and are more secure, because they stop working as soon as they are removed from the owner.

Other developments with potential include the production of garments with sensors that monitor heart rhythm and transmit them to smart phones. At the moment these are being designed purely with athletes and sportspeople in mind, but their spin-offs may include applications that permit payment biometrics.

For the retailer facing this onslaught of new payment methods, installing technology to accept biometric payments becomes less of a gamble if a trusted company with hundreds of millions of customers like Apple is leading the way. If the cost of the interface is relatively low, retailers may well adopt this technology because of savings in meeting payment card industry compliance standards.

Although no date has been set for the launch of ApplePay in the UK, in the US, McDonald’s and Sears have signed up for it, using a device on the counter to take payments from the iPhone 6 and Apple Watch.

It seems inevitable that as more people buy goods in-store using their own smart phones and devices, the next step will be for them to use biometric identification to free themselves from remembering codes and passwords. Consumers also want to pay with their own devices because they are familiar with them and they will be able to do so without having to populate their interfaces with a plethora of individual store apps.

So as biometric payments receive a major boost from Apple, the very best from the technology has probably yet to arrive in-store.


James Pepper is Technical Services Director at Vista Retail Support


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