New products, Protecting yourself

Buy stuff just by nodding? I’m shaking my head

Jay MacDonald

“Imagine coming to a store and your wallet is already there.”

So begins a beguiling new YouTube video from Finnish startup Uniqul (think: unique) that promises to one day replace all the cumbersome PIN/password/security code verification of your typical credit card transaction with one hands-free identifier that no one can steal or duplicate: your face. (Offer not good in Hollywood.)Buy stuff just by nodding? I'm shaking my head

Uniqul bills itself as the world’s first facial recognition payment system. Once its store-mounted camera spots you, the company’s “military grade algorithms” compare your face to the biometrics in its database. If your mug is registered, the system completes all the verification voodoo for you while you shop. At check out, all you have to do is give “a meaningful nod” and press OK on the point-of-sale terminal and you’re on your way 25 seconds faster than the average 30-second card transaction.

Now, if you’re already a bit uneasy with this whole idea, it’s probably because the optics (pardon the pun) of facial recognition have been limited thus far to two decidedly non-warm-and-fuzzy pursuits: security surveillance and catching bad guys.

We may marvel at the role that facial recognition played in hunting down the Boston Marathon bombing suspects in mere hours, but we haven’t quite made the leap to embracing big brother as the expediter of our shopping dreams.

It doesn’t help that the most-recognizable “face” of facial recognition in popular culture so far is that creepy software billionaire Harold Finch, played by Michael Emerson on CBS-TV’s “Person of Interest.” The show’s premise is that Finch, through supercomputers, facial recognition software and omnipresent cameras (along with an occasional right cross from a hard-muscled helper) anonymously prevents bad things from happening.

Even if the pay-by-face concept doesn’t creep you out, the question remains: Would you pay for the convenience of shaving 25 seconds off your purchase time with a “meaningful nod?” For its upcoming launch in Helsinki, Uniqul plans to charge Fins from $1.30 to $9.20 per month, depending on how far and wide they plan to nod.

Attempts to speed up America’s traditional mag stripe transaction with “tap-and-go” near-field communications (NFC) and mobile apps have had little impact, largely due to lack of widespread merchant acceptance. More intrusive one-step verification systems such as fingerprinting never even got off the drafting table. All of which leaves U.S. merchants and card issuers in a decade-long stalemate over who’s going to pick up the tab to invest in smart card POS technology.

Could facial recognition be that magical, cost-effective breakthrough they’ve both been searching for?

I’m not getting that picture, at least not yet. The technology is too new and prone to fail when the images are blurry or heads tilted. And in my view, America is getting more, not less, uncomfortable with eyes in the sky, whether it’s Times Square or drones buzzing the neighborhood or red-light cameras at intersections.

In the current environment, it’s going to be an uphill climb to sell facial recognition as a consumer convenience in the United States — even if it is.

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