Biometric payments are making another run at the grocery store, this time at the hands or Amazon. Or, to be more precise, in the hands of Amazon’s customers. Amazon, the company that brought consumers scan and go, is about to bring consumers pay by hand — a new payment system designed to allow Whole Foods shoppers to pay for their groceries by merely waving at a scanner. No phone, no keys — just a biometric handprint scan and the customer is free to go.
Or at least that is the end game for the technology. According to reports in the New York Post, the system is code-named “Orville” and is still in its early testing days within Amazon’s New York offices. So far Orville tech is only in service on a handful of customized vending machines for Amazon employee use that have hand scanners installed in them.
The system doesn’t require a “hard touch” — consumers do not have to lay their hand down on the scanner — instead, the consumer waves a hand over the device which then uses a combination of computer vision and depth geometry to identify the customer and connect to their card on file.
In one sense, a big move in handprint-based biometrics is not all that surprising — particularly in light of the minor controversy Amazon recently stirred-up with announced improvements to its face-scanning software suite Amazon Rekognition. With mounting complaints that the technology is “creepy” at best and “dangerous” at worst — not to mention the increasingly regular comparisons to Big Brother — Amazon broadening its biometrics technology base seems advisable since clearly, people have mixed feelings about facial recognition tech.
However, in another sense, it is surprising that Amazon is pushing innovation in the biometrics payments arena at all, given its high historical correlations to failure.
Amazon is not the first player that has made this attempt in the world of retail. It isn’t even the first (or second or third) to attempt to roll out biometrics payments in the world of grocery retail. It’s been tried, quite a few times and in a few forms over the last decade-and-a-half, usually to a similar outcome. The product rolls out with much fanfare — sticks around for a little while, before quietly creeping off never to be heard from again.
Can Amazon make it work — and prove biometrics have been ahead of their time and are now ready to take off? Or are they something that consumers aren’t that into, no matter how many times technologists try to persuade them otherwise?
The Bumpy Biometric Path
Among the earliest players to test out biometric-based payments was the grocery chain Piggly Wiggly — which began by piloting a fingerprint scan based payments system in June of 2004 courtesy of Pay By Touch. The program was a big enough success in pilots that about a year later, Piggly Wiggly decided to roll out the service to the entire chain — mostly located in the Southeast United States.
“We’re thrilled about the success Piggly Wiggly has had with Pay By Touch,” said John Rogers, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Pay By Touch. “We believe 2005 will be a big year for consumer biometric payments across the country, and Piggly Wiggly is leading the movement toward a new way for shoppers to pay. The impressive customer adoption rates we’ve seen already will continue to increase as we add more and more retailers to our network.”
The trouble was, one strong pilot does not a durable product make — and Pay By Touch, the provider that brought biometric payments to Piggly Wiggly had two separate, but related, challenges that it could not overcome. The first, more minor issue, was consumer habit. To lower the cost of payments, Pay By Touch was ACH based, not tied to customers' debit or credit cards. By 2004, most American consumers were dedicated card users — and fingerprint scan plus ACH transfer was a harder transition from swipe and PIN than initially anticipated. Plus, it was a pain to sign up for — think decoupled debit via the fingerprint — a big ask and an even bigger leap of faith.
The other, more significant issue was its technology — which at the time was one-of-kind and revolutionary. However, it had functionality issues — particularly in an unusually high “fail” rate because it could not adequately scan a fingerprint. A payment method that is less reliable than the cards they were trying to replace was a problem — and Pay By Touch burned through a staggering amount of funding to improve the product. Ultimately, however, the costs overwhelmed the firm, and it was never quite able to get its tech up to card-level reliability. Pay By Touch declared bankruptcy in 2007 — thus effectively ending biometric payments at Piggly Wiggly.
A similar fate, albeit at a smaller scale, befell Chicago area Jewel and Osco grocery stores — which in 2007 rolled out a fingerprint-based payment system of their own — only to have to abruptly pull the plug on it in 2008 when the firm providing their biometrics technology, payments processing firm Solidus Networks Inc., shut down their biometrics unit with almost no warning.
The program wasn’t unpopular, according to contemporary reports — the problem was it wasn’t overwhelmingly popular either.
“We found there was a slow but steady acceptance by customers,” said Jewel spokesman Miguel Alba said at the time to The Chicago Tribune.
However, it suffered from many of the same reliability problems that Pay By Touch had before it, which gave consumers little, maybe even zero incentive, to use it. It also dealt with costs of hardware improvement and ultimately wasn’t able to bring in enough business to sustain their efforts, and the firm declared bankruptcy in 2008.
A variation on this theme that has been gaining traction in the U.K. doesn’t use the fingerprint. Instead, it uses a harder to map (and harder to steal) infrared scan of the vein pattern in a consumer's fingertips. The firm associated with this biometric payment method — Fingopay — has been slowly but surely gaining traction within the U.S. since 2017 and has started to gain traction in the grocery, stadium and hospitality segments.
On the upside, Fingopay does seem to have a better accuracy reading than that of its fingerprint-running forebears. However, it, too, has seen slow adoption, according to reports. Because the system needs to log how blood is pumping within the system, users report lining up their finger on the sensor and holding it still is often a slower process than just dipping or tapping a card.
Talk To – And Pay With – The Hand
Against the specific issues that have plagued biometrics in the past, early reports indicated that Amazon has made at least some progress. The system is not slow: according to Amazon, paying by hand scan takes about 300 milliseconds. Paying with a card takes 4 seconds.
Also, reportedly, the system is accurate — down to within one ten-thousandth of 1 percent. That is a marked improvement over the fail rates of the past, but Amazon wants to improve that to a millionth of 1 percent ahead of its launch scheduled for select locations starting in early 2020.
At which point we will learn if biometric payments are an idea that has finally found the time period meant for them. In 2004, for example, a fingerprint scan was exotic and the idea a company storing one's fingerprint could be concerning. In 2019, a biometric scan is how most consumers unlock their phones (unless they are using their face print instead) and are used to the idea that all of their most sensitive data is sitting on someone else’s server at all times. With most of the roadblocks removed, biometrics might be able to live up to their full potential and take off.
Then again, mobile payments were also once billed as faster, safer and more convenient than using a card as well. Why dip when one can wave a card at the point of sale (POS) and be done? Five years after the much-trumpeted release of Apple Pay — and cards are doing just great — mobile payments are still struggling to break into double-digit usage rate in the U.S.
Because when it comes to payments, people are very habit driven and usually need something more than a neat new form factor to change what they are already doing. Speed and convenience are the cornerstones of Amazon’s delivery model — and they have the consumer’s trust. One might argue that the two most efficient ways of paying are to use the form factors that require nothing at all but the person to be present — using their voice or using their hand. So on both, Amazon appears to be making some very bold moves.