eCommerce’s Sci-Fi Summer

In 1977, a little movie made by a mostly unknown director about an intergalactic insurgency against an evil empire changed the world as we know it.

That movie, of course, was “Star Wars.”

Apart from being the greatest film in history and introducing the world to the concept of The Force and to the term Jedi, the release of that blockbuster film also officially dubbed summer as the season for sci-fi.
In June of 1982, audiences throughout the world flocked to theaters to see ET phone home. In 1996, every red-blooded American celebrated their Independence Day by watching Will Smith offer Earth’s official greeting to an invading alien (with his fist).

We could list dozens of other summer sci-fi hits and not even fully cover the works of Steven Spielberg – because, as Yoda would say, “strong is the draw when the Death Star’s explosion you see.”

And while the movies that have pulled in the popcorn-powered hordes over the 38 intervening years have all offered their own unique versions of seeing the Death Star explode – their essential strength is that the audience gets to see people just like them (but skilled in kung fu) living in a world like ours (except in a galaxy far, far away) using awesome technology (but with amazing superpowers) to save the world (or universe and/or entire human race).

Alas, most real life does not resemble a science fiction summer blockbuster. Almost no one knows kung fu and not even Richard Branson thinks intergalactic travel is on anyone’s roadmap any time soon. And while the lack of readily available lightsabers, hoverboards, or warp drives on the open market is a little disappointing – it’s perhaps an error to write off technology as hopelessly lagging behind the best ideas in the sci-fi world.


Because, as PYMNTS found out, the 2015 summer of sci-fi isn’t only coming to a theater near you — it also just might be getting served up on your smartphone.

Security Via Mind Reading

Let’s face it. Nobody likes passwords. Well, actually, most people like what passwords do (protect their sensitive information), they just don’t like having to remember them, particularly since the average consumer has 10 or more to remember. Some people write them all down – which feels like a bad idea, but is actually recommended (even if a little tongue-in-cheek) by security experts over what most people actually do, which is create one password and use it for everything, including ATM and mobile banking access. That’s obviously a poor strategy, particularly when phishing attacks and data breaches are the “new normal.” Having one password essentially turns that password, literally, into the digital skeleton key to unlock an online consumer’s entire life.

Sure, alternatives are being developed. Bio authentication via fingerprint is becoming increasingly popular after Apple gave it the “thumbs up” on the iPhone 5 with Touch ID.

Fingerprint scan technology, however, some have found, is somewhat famously hackable. YouTube is literally full of videos of amateur crackers defeating TouchID using cloned fingerprints (lifted from glass, made with glue). This has sent researchers off looking for something that no one could ever emulate perfectly: the user’s thoughts.

Or to be a little more accurate, the user’s brain waves.

(Cue the theme from “The Twilight Zone”)

UC Berkeley researchers claim that computer brain wave-based authentication could be developed into an effective and secure substitution for manually entered passwords. Brain wave authentication relies on EEGs (brain wave measurements) and a computer’s ability to recognize distinct brain wave patterns associated with individuals. Once a “match” is established, a user could then be allowed to access accounts via what the researchers call “pass-thoughts.”

Experiments — conducted by UC Berkeley professor John Chuang and engineering and computer science student Charles Wang — revolved around the use of the Neurosky MindSet, a $199 brain wave-reading headset connected to a computer with Bluetooth technology.

Participants used the headset to perform seven mental tasks. The first three did a common activity, such as focusing on their breathing or imagining moving a finger up and down.

The other four tasks were customized so that an individual’s “thought profile” for each user could be tested.

By selecting customized tasks for each user and then customizing each user’s authentication thresholds, the team was able to reduce error rates to below 1 percent, comparable to the accuracy of more invasive multi-channel EEG signals,” the researchers noted.

The researchers concluded further that while technologically this was now possible, users would still need to be persuaded and the process would have to be “non-invasive,” noting “if trying to unlock your phone with your mind is a pain – people won’t do it, no matter how much more secure it is.”

Unbelievably, this is not the first time that brain waves have been proposed as a replacement for passwords – but this does represent the first time the technology necessary to make this happen – high accuracy EEGs – have been small and inexpensive enough to embed for practical use.

OK. We don’t even want to contemplate the chargeback problems with this “I only thought about buying that dress …I really didn’t mean to actually buy it…..”

The Touchless Touch Screen

While the touch screen is a modern wonder that has changed all of our collective lives, it does pose one small problem.

Or better yet, it poses a problem with smallness – namely of the screen.
Little screens make it harder to “tap and go” as one becomes increasingly likely to “tap” the wrong thing. The phenomenon known as “fat fingering” only gets more pronounced with the less surface area one is given to work with. That makes using the map, typing a text or trying to buy something … frustrating.

Friction-filled is more the word.

One solution has been to make the screens larger a la the phablet movement. However, not everyone is interesting in taking a phone that is the size of a waffle into a store and whacking it across a terminal.

Alternatively, as wearables like the Apple Watch get popular, screens will only continue to get smaller. If one wants to be the cool kid, one must perfect transacting on a teensy screen.

Or if Google has it its way, those cool kids will be able to work their touch screens without ever actually touching the screen.

Or by using brain waves.

Created under the heading Project Soli, Google’s contribution to sci-fi commerce uses radar waves to detect precise finger movements – or as they call them, “micromotions.”

Not only does the tech “see” fine movements, but is smart enough to ignore others, irrelevant gestures, for example, like swatting at a bug.

This project is still pretty nascent – hanging out in the Advanced Technology and Projects lab, where Google works on all of their “science fiction stuff,” but according to reports it looks fairly promising.

In one demo you can see a user changing the hours on a clock by simply turning an imaginary dial and kicking a virtual football by flicking at the screen.

Other motion sensors – like Kinect – don’t do fine motions, which is key to a virtual touch screen. The secret sauce is the high-frequency radar (60 Hz), which enables a high enough resolution to detect those types of motion.

It took Google about 10 months of work to shrink this array down into a fingernail-sized chip – small enough that it could be integrated into electronic devices, especially smartphones.

Google also reportedly paid special attention to smart watches as a use case for this tech.

In-Store Shopping At Home

Shopping online has the distinct benefit of being something one can do alone and comfortably from their couch – and even in one’s pajamas while swilling a glass of red wine, if they so desire.

And while that is, in many ways, superior to the experience of crowds, noise and non-elastic waisted clothing that “real world” shopping usually entails – it does make the act of browsing somewhat trickier. It’s certainly getting easier to browse online, but there’s still nothing quite like wandering the aisles, coming across an item you didn’t know you wanted until you saw it and then buying it up.

Or at least there isn’t now.

But good news for all of those pajama-clad shoppers! Virtual reality isn’t just for hardcore gamers, Mark Zuckerberg or pornography enthusiasts.

Soon it could be coming to a couch near you — again, if Google has anything to say about it.

While stories about Google “Cardboard” have circulated for a year – the part it plays in Google’s whole virtual reality push is starting to take shape. While most VR tech is expensive, Google is making a run at Augmented and Virtual Reality for the layman with a cardboard box that turns your smartphone into a VR headset.


By building a frame of goggles around it that sync with an app’s stereoscopic video.

Google plans to add this functionality to YouTube, allowing people to upload video that would be split stereoscopically for use with Google Cardboard.

That is now paired with a software platform called Jump and Jump’s much higher tech counterpart – a mammoth 16-camera rig, designed by GoPro.

The rig shoots video in 360 degrees, then the Google Jump code stitches it all together and gets rid of the seams, rendering a usable stereoscopic video file at high resolution (Google says the finished product is like five 4k TVs playing at once).

The rig’s cost is unknown, but it would cost $4,800 in GoPro cameras alone (right now the only camera open for users). That means that the price tag will likely be fairly potent.

However, Google sees the potential for this device as strong – particularly as an add-on for commerce. The use of Google Jump’s tech would allow retailers to create interactive, 360 degree representations of the stores for potential users (with customer built avatars) to shop in.

It is also worthing noting that Google doesn’t seem to be alone in the pursuit of this commerce VR vision. Apple quietly acquired an AR firm earlier this week, and Facebook managed to capture all the headlines last year with its high-priced acquisition of Oculus Rift.

In-store shopping without the crowds and still clad in PJs – what could be better than that?

OK – so maybe passed thoughts, touchless touch screens and the in-store shopping experience at home is not quite a lightsaber.

But then again, is there any real practical use case for a lightsaber? Sure, it would look cool, but then again, who really needs a weapon to fight a Sith Lord?

Eliminate friction from a small touch screen? Or having to remember a zillion passwords? Or bring the experience of an in-store shopping experience home?

It seems like the future for all of these things could be coming very, very soon.


Latest Insights:

Our data and analytics team has developed a number of creative methodologies and frameworks that measure and benchmark the innovation that’s reshaping the payments and commerce ecosystem. In the December 2019 Mobile Card App Adoption Study, PYMNTS surveyed 2,000 U.S. consumers for a reveal of the four most compelling features apps must have to engage users and drive greater adoption.

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