Ready to pay by voice? Mastercard is combating cash with innovation

  • Mastercard is engaged on a ‘war on cash’, leading to exciting new innovations in contactless payment tech, including voice, gait, and facial recognition 
  • Businesses can leverage this movement to understand customers better than ever before

Digital technology has been the fuel keeping much of business and society running in the first half of the year, whether that’s a surge to cloud computing to support remote working or the tidal shift of retail online.

Overnight, technology became a nice-to-have competitive differentiator to a survival tool. Digital transformation trends have been accelerated across industries. The cashless movement has been no different. Aside from the immediate benefits of reducing contact, forward-thinking retailers and other businesses are ready to embrace the newest payment methods and capitalize on the improved convenience it brings to customers, and extra business value in terms of facilitating a seamless online-offline experience, as well as the ability to track customers through things such as loyalty schemes and targeted offers. 

Digital payments mean digital customers, and contactless plays a vital role in harvesting the data powering a booming customer relationship management (CRM) market among retailers, one that Gartner expects to be worth US$80 million by 2025. 

Payments giants like Mastercard are at the bleeding edge of this opportunity, naturally, since they earn a small fee on every digital transaction they facilitate. They have established networks, the infrastructure, and financial clout to lead, innovate, and continue to push new standards, both in spite of and alongside new fintech startups. 

The war on cash

Speaking on our affiliated podcast Tech Means Business only last week, Ben Gilbey, Mastercard’s Senior Vice President, Digital Payments and Labs, Asia Pacific, made no bones about the level of the company’s commitments to enable a cashless society. 

We’ve been pushing the ‘war on cash’ agenda for quite some time now. And we see that in all forms of digital payments, particularly in contactless payments or point-of-sale, which have seen a huge acceleration as a result of COVID-19.”

Digital payments are becoming a “permanent fixture of [people’s] lives,” he said: “[…] we’re not just looking to support our physical cards with digital experiences, we’re actually designing digital experiences from the ground up.”

Going biometric

Indeed, for Mastercard, the move to contactless isn’t just about NFC-enabled cards and smartphones, it’s about pushing boundaries of payments as a more integrated function in our daily routines. If digital payments are the inevitable future, it’s hedging its bets on being the chief innovator in an increasingly automated and digital society. 

From Mastercard Labs in Singapore, Gilbey’s research and development team work on everything from robotics, machine learning, wearables, and biometric authentication, exploring ways in which the contactless payment technology can be pushed and advanced further. 

“Last year, we announced a partnership with Tapi, one of the world leaders in wearable contactless technologies,” he said. “They produce watch straps that you can put on any watch that has a contactless chip embedded, which means I don’t need to just have an Apple Watch, I can take my regular analog watch, replace the strap, and tap and pay.

“They’ve embedded the technology within sunglasses, so if I don’t like wearing a watch, but I like wearing sunglasses in Ibiza, I can take my sunglasses and tap and pay with them,” Gilbey continued. “They’ve even introduced things like coffee cups, where I can take my reusable coffee cups in my Starbucks and pay for my grande latte at Starbucks.”

Biometrics technology, such as facial recognition, is a key area of R&D. It is “arguably the ultimate in contactless and wearable payments.”

Gilbey explained: “If I can simply pay by looking at a camera at the 711, blinking my eyes to show that indeed I am alive — that is an extremely streamlined and frictionless experience.”

Mastercard teamed up with SoundHound to bring ‘voice payments’ to White Castle drive-thrus. Source: Shutterstock

The way you walk and talk

Elsewhere, Mastercard is working with transport corporations to develop new systems that can identify and authenticate passengers by the way they walk, using gait analysis. The idea is that commuters simply walk towards an automatic turnstile and pay their train fare, without once needing to reach into their pocket. 

“The way you hold your phone, which ear you use, and how your fingers touch the buttons are all unique to you. We have been testing heartbeat, vein technology, and the way people walk to authenticate people,” Mastercard’s Ajay Bhalla told MarketWatch

Earlier this month, the payments giant teamed up with audio and speech recognition startups SoundHound and license plate recognition company Rekor Systems to allow drive-thru customers at select White Castle restaurants to pay with their voice. 

The tie-up, especially if rolled out among other quick-service restaurants, could unlock a goldmine — the industry is worth US$293 billion in the United States, and 70% of sales occur at drive-thrus. It’s also one of the first industries expected to become widely automated

At certain restaurants, customers will be able to pull up to the drive-thru, where they will be met by an AI-enabled voice assistant. Once the customer’s voiceprint is validated, they’ll get a personalized menu based on past orders, the weather, or the time of day. Mastercard’s software will work in the background to securely verify and transact the purchase. 

The convergence of these technologies is a testament to the new experiences and value that innovations in payment technology can bring. Mastercard and other firms in the finance industry have a vested interest in ousting cash from business and society, but in doing so, they are unlocking ways to transform and add value to even the most pedestrian of transactions. 

Listen to the full Tech Means Business podcast with Mastercard’s Ben Gilbey here

Cashless PaymentCyber SecurityDigital TransformationInnovationSoftware