Microsoft has provided a detailed account of a new mobile payment system it hopes could make a splash on its Windows Phone platform, enabling users to pay for goods without even lifting a finger.
Mobile payments are rapidly becoming a key battleground for smartphone makers, with Google touting its Wallet system, while the newly unveiled Samsung Galaxy S4 boasts the inclusion of Visa's payWave system.
But while the herd is looking at near-field communications as a means to conduct a transaction – for example, swiping ones phone over a reader – Microsoft researchers have been exploring whether it might provide the gateway for paying without the hassle of fumbling for your handset. They call it Zero-Effort Payment [pdf].
According to Stefan Saroiu, from Microsoft Research, who developed the system alongside colleagues, ZEP would also allow retailers to deliver more personalised customer service, such as offering frequent buyer discounts, without forcing the customers to carry a loyalty card.
The system works by integrating Bluetooth technology with the face recognition technology built in to its Kinect gaming system. The Bluetooth system detects when a user signed up to the service has entered a shop, with the face recognition system used to identify a customer that is waiting to pay.
The Bluetooth system can discern when a participating customer enters a shop, but it cannot identify individual customers queuing at the checkout.
Likewise, face recognition systems are not yet accurate to quickly and accurately identify individuals when faced with thousands of possible choices.
“Fortunately, the Bluetooth system narrows the set of potential identities to just those standing within wireless range,” the researchers wrote in a newly published paper describing their system. “The combination of these two technologies lets our solution meet its speed, cost, and accuracy goals.”
To double down on accuracy, the system presents cashiers with a choice of four possible faces, displayed on a tablet housed near the till. They simply pick the right face when the customer is ready to pay.
The system then emails the customer with confirmation of the purchase, including a 10-second video, in case they wish to dispute the transaction.
Microsoft has been testing the system at one of own cafeterias, as well as on a coffee stand at its TechFest conference. Both trials presented different challenges: the TechFest one had hundreds of potential customers looming into view; while the cafeteria trial had a slower stream of customers, but was conducted over four months. In both cases, the system worked a treat, and there were no cases of disputed transactions.
“Across our two deployments, 274 customers made 705 purchases, and we received no complaints about the wrong customer being billed,” the researchers boasted.
That said, there's still some way to go before we see the system on Windows Phone – even if that's the ultimate aim. The trials were conducted using specially built key fobs. This allowed the researchers to prove the system works, as well as ensuring that it could run without consuming too much battery life.
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