The end of wearables? Google launches hands-free payments

Wearable payment technology has been one of the hottest trends in the last couple of years. From Heritage Bank’s pay-by-sleeve suit to Barclays payment wristbands, everyone is looking for ways to make it easier to pay.

But while wearables could spell the end of the wallet, could the pace of technological change mean wearables are little more than a flash in the pan?

Hands-free

Google has launched its first Hands Free payments app, offering us a glimpse into the future of payments where all the customer has to do is speak a couple of words to carry out the transaction. Forget wearables, this is paying with yourself.

Square has tried something like this before, but it would seem that the market could now be ready to embrace the concept. Of course, at present it relies on the customer having a phone with the app and some manual processes.

It uses a combination of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, location services and other sensors to detect whether the consumer is near a participating store. “This enables you to pay hands-free, without fumbling with your phone or opening the Hands Free app,” says Google.

At the checkout, the customer just has to tell the cashier “I’ll pay with Google”. The cashier then just confirms the ID by asking for the customer’s initials and checking their photo against the person standing in front of them.

But at some stores, Google is taking things a stage further, and gets closer to the goal of genuinely seamless payments.

“At select stores, we are also running very early experiments using visual identification to further simplify the checkout process. This process uses an in-store camera to automatically confirm your identity based on your Hands Free profile picture,” says Google.

These “early experiments” are the most exciting thing about the hands-free payments. By smoothing out the manual processes we can get to a stage where you can walk into a store and pay without really having to do anything.

This is all possible thanks to increasingly sophisticated biometric identification methods and secure authentication processes. With biometrics playing an increasingly central role across the world of payments and banking, fully seamless payments are not going to be far off.

The question for Google is whether its Hands Free app is the difference.

Will it take off?

Square attempted a hands-free payment service before, but ditched it in 2014 because it simply couldn’t get enough retailers to join. The market has definitely moved on since then. In-store mobile payments are growing fast and consumers are beginning to feel comfortable with mobile wallets and contactless technology.

Merchant adoption of the platform is essential. At the moment Google is trialling Hands Free at a few stores in the South Bay area of San Francisco, but it’s hopeful this can be expanded.

Arguably, Google has a bit more clout than Square. Just like Apple Pay has driven NFC acceptance, Google could create the demand thanks to its global footprint.

Consumer demand is maybe tougher. Whether the tech-savvy residents of South Bay can be replicated elsewhere is another matter.

Critical to its success will also be ensuring payments made through the channel are safe and secure. And it looks like Google is taking this pretty seriously.

The app never shares full credit or debit card numbers with the store, while payment details are only shared with the payment processor.

Cashiers can only process the transaction if the Hands Free app detects that the phone is near the store. Users get instant notifications after every purchase, while fraud prevention systems are there to alert them of any unusual activity. Google is also keen to protect personal details, with the images and data from the Hands Free in-store camera deleted immediately after the purchase.

Hands-free payments really offer us a look at the future of payments

Written by Andy Brown

Andy is marketing director for payments at NCR. He has nearly 30 years' experience in e-payment systems from the delivery and support of systems in the Far East and Europe, from both the product management and marketing perspectives. Based in the UK, Andy is responsible for marketing NCR payment solutions.

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