Future of finance is real eye-opener
(Sunday Times London; 04/26/98)
A cashpoint that scans your eye to give you account access is the latest
step in a banking revolution, writes Nick Gardner
THE eyes may be the window to the soul, but they could soon be the doors to
your bank account, too.
Nationwide building society's trial of a cashpoint that works by recognising
your iris could change the way we pay for things for ever.
Not only will the technology allow us to withdraw cash from machines, but
your eyes could soon be used to replace debit cards such as Switch and Delta.
Experts say supermarkets could be equipped with cameras at the checkouts which
will analyse your eyes, match them up to your bank details and debit the money
from your account.
The initial idea is to phase out the cashpoint card Pin number, which can be
difficult to remember and is an easily abused security risk.
If successful, Nationwide says the cashpoint card itself could be done away
with. Paul Feldman, head of Nationwide's Business Futures, which is running the
pilot, says: "The days of the cardless cashpoint are nearer than anybody
"It is entirely possible for somebody simply to stand in front of a
cashpoint and be recognised instantly. The iris would be matched to the
relevant account and the machine would be at their disposal."
The current system kicks in after the customer inserts his or her card. A
camera behind the cashpoint screen focuses in on the eye and uses a series of
concentric circles to map the dark markings on the iris against the circular
"map". The iris is totally unique and is the only part of the body that never
changes, so there is no danger of somebody else's eyes matching your own.
Feldman says that iris recognition could be used whenever anybody needs to
identify themselves - when opening a new account, going through passport
controls or even to the police.
The trial in Swindon will last for six months, at which point Nationwide
will decide whether to roll it out nationally. It is just the latest
breakthrough in an explosion of retail financial technology that is supposed to
make life more convenient.
The NatWest-and Midland-backed Mondex project, an electronic smartcard
intended to replace cash, has been on trial in Swindon since 1995.
Although given a lukewarm reception, banks are still forecasting that
electronic cash is here to stay, especially as emerging technology will allow
withdrawals to be made and charged to the card via mobile phones. "You could
soon be withdrawing cash from the bank while sitting on the train," says
Feldman. "But the technology will not be introduced until banks are convinced
there is a big enough market."
Banks have started to make access easier by installing "virtual branches" in
shops and hospitals. NatWest has placed kiosks in Londis supermarkets, with
telephone links to branches, and facilities for mortgage quotes and the
purchase of insurance. Customers can get cashback at the till in place of a
However, this is not so much high technology as simple customer service in
areas where branches have closed or never operated.
One futuristic service that is likely to become a reality is television
banking. You can watch television on many personal computers (PCs) already, but
when televisions are also PCs things will really hot up.
Steve Bendall of NatWest says: "You need to imagine somebody sitting on
their sofa with remote control in hand. You could basically do anything. In the
next few years we can easily envisage televisions with cameras inside so you
can have two-way, visual conversations with bank staff and carry out any number
of transactions, even cash withdrawals via your electronic Mondex card."
Financial life in the next millennium could become unrecognisable. Barclays
has commissioned the Henley Centre for Forecasting, the think-tank, to produce
a report entitled 2020 Vision, a prediction of life in the year 2020.
It forecasts not a single European currency, but a single global currency,
or at least the planning of one.
Graeme Leach, a director at Henley, says: "We have taken the clear trends
visible today and projected them into the future, and we think they have a high
level of validity. The sin gle currency is one, but the way we work will
change, too. Increasing numbers of people are already working from home and we
see many multinational companies becoming 'virtual companies', where everybody
communicates via video conferencing and the Internet."
A key factor in how successful this technology becomes is how readily the
public accepts it. However, with today's teenagers having grown up with
computers and ever-advancing technology, it seems logical that they will not
only accept it, but demand it.
Leach says: "Today's kids will be middle-aged by the time much of this
technology comes to fruition, but it will succeed precisely because they have
grown up with the Internet. "
Housebuilders are expected to join in the techno-revolution as well,
installing wall-to-wall screens that will enable life-size communication with
banks or friends.
"Once electronic money has been accepted," says Leach, "you could then call
up your bank on your wall, ask the receptionist to extend your overdraft and
have the funds sent directly to your Mondex card over the airwaves. I believe
we will all be doing it sooner than we think."