The emerging market for mobile payments (the fancy term for paying with a phone rather than cash or a credit card) is a particularly fierce one. Massive tech brands, mobile carriers, and payment processors are all vying for a slice of the pie. Adoption so far has been slowed by a lack of cooperation among those big entities. They can't agree on the type of hardware that mobile payment platforms should use, let alone how consumers will interact with the systems.
So there's an opening for a better, more nimble solution, and dozens of startups are trying to fill it. One of those companies, LevelUp, has already built a network with 5,000 merchant partners and 1 million users. Anyone with an iOS or Android device can download a LevelUp app, which generates a unique QR code linked to a bank card. Instead of paying with cash or card, users can scan the code at participating businesses. In the current, fractured landscape of mobile payment, it works pretty well.
A Point-of-Sale Is You
Last week, LevelUp invited us to check out some of the concepts they're working on for its next-generation payment systems. And yes, one of them involves Google Glass.
CEO Seth Priebatsch was barefoot and wearing a bright orange shirt when he greeted us at LevelUp's offices on the 11th floor of a building near Boston's Government Center district. The twenty-something "proud Princeton dropout" calls himself the "Chief Ninja" of LevelUp (it's that kind of startup).
He first showed us a new phone scanner, set to be deployed to all participating merchants. A big part of LevelUp's success so far has been because its scanners are easy to use. Users don't need a specific handset or wireless carrier to make a mobile payment (requirements that limit the usefulness of Google Wallet and PayPal's mobile service). The new scanners look different, but work the same way.
But LevelUp is already looking beyond the mobile phone. That’s where Google Glass comes in.
With a public launch date sometime in 2014, Google Glass is still very much in its beta phase. Nonetheless, LevelUp has begun fiddling around with the already-infamous augmented-reality glasses. They’ve developed an app that turns Glass itself into the point-of-sale. Glass-wearing merchants can scan a LevelUp user's QR code by simply looking at it (or more accurately, pointing the Glass camera at it). The merchant can then select the price on Glass with a few swipes of his finger, and then a full receipt is delivered to the customer’s phone.
Basically, Glass becomes the LevelUp QR-code scanner. Not exactly an Earth-shattering revelation, but it could make mobile payments much smoother at sit-down restaurants, or at festivals or sporting events. Servers bring the payment system to you, rather than taking your phone to a scanner.
We had a chance to play around with Glass and the LevelUp app on our visit. It was the first time that any of us had actually used Glass, and it isn't immediately intuitive. But we got the hang of it within a few minutes, and the payment app worked pretty smoothly as we ordered pretend-waffles from each other a few times.
It's All in the Eyes
A more distant possibility is a transaction system that bypasses the smartphone altogether, instead relying on facial recognition technology.
Priebatsch said that he imagines the facial-recognition capabilities of Google Glass will gain renewed interest “once the NSA controversy” dies down. Then, he argued, Google will lift its ban on such apps and services. That points to a future where merchants can securely process transactions by quite literally reading the faces of their customers.
Asked if he thought this was inevitable, Priebatsch noted that such a scenario shouldn’t frighten people, since the human face is non-replicable and far more idiosyncratic than a fingerprint, password, or account handle. “Unless a thief has an extensive background in facial surgery it shouldn’t be a problem,” he said.
A Dream Within a Dream
Eager to show off more of the possibilities of Google Glass, Priebatsch paired Glass with his HTC One via Bluetooth; this played a choppy video feed on his mobile, allowing us to literally see what Seth was seeing.
The idea of watching a video feed on your smartphone as it broadcasts your own first-person perspective sounds like the inspiration for a Christopher Nolan film (It's like a dream... within a dream!). But such a possibility may prove...distasteful to some, let's say.
Admitting that such technology could allow employers to remotely monitor the activities of their employees, Priebatsch joked that LevelUp skips that process altogether by planting a small chip beneath its employees’ ears to read their thoughts directly.
We laugh, but the true potential of augmented reality glasses may come frighteningly close to such a scenario. Recall that the App Store for the iPhone was treated as a nice but probably superfluous addition to its list of features. Now it's arguably the most important part of the iOS ecosystem. Google Glass or any of the rumored wearable-tech products in development could prove to be just as revolutionary as the iPhone (maybe), so the most profound effects are yet to be imagined.