NCR eyes screen-free banking machines

Hitting the ATM for some fast cash could be a very different experience a few years down the road.

The ATM, as likely located in a record store as on a street corner might be a screen-free grey egg that dispenses hard copies of vital e-mails as well as cash. Or it could be a bright red half-egg that sells mp3 files and animated cartoons

NCR Corp. prototypes on display at the Royal Bank e-Business Intelligence Symposium Monday suggest a profound departure from today’s box-like bank machines, in appearance as well as in functionality.

The two NCR “Freedom” machines were designed with wireless in mind and conduct interactions through infrared and Bluetooth technology. The grey Freedom 1 machine has no buttons and no view-screen, only a wireless receptor that interacts with personal digital assistants and cellular phones.

Though NCR spokespeople emphasize challenging the status quo, including the appearance of ATMs, the company is not planning to see Freedom 1s on street corners anytime soon. Instead, Dayton, Ohio-based NCR plans to slowly augment traditional ATMs with Freedom features, beginning with electronic receipts beamed to cell phones

“Freedom is clearly a concept car. The no-screen ATM is an extreme,” said NCR’s chief technology officer Mark Grossi, adding NCR does eventually hope to see bank machines without screens in public spaces. “In reality, the first instance you will see of this will be ATMs with screens with an option for a PDA. We can’t just turn consumer behaviour around overnight.”

More like three-to-five years. That’s the time frame of NCR’s Advanced Concepts Lab in Dundee, Scotland where Grossi works. The lab has so far designed four Freedom machines and plans to have seven completed by the end of the year. Freedom 4 is the red half-egg machine. Designed for 15-18 year olds, Freedom 4 dispenses mp3 files and animated cartoons as well as quick cash and interacts with PDAs, phones and Nintendo Game Boys. Similar to Freedom 4, Freedom 3 charges less for its wares, with advertising making up for lost revenue. Freedom 2 is simply a fast cash machine that accepts pre-paid cash cards rather than infrared or Bluetooth signals.

But Grossi and Tim Wiggins, marketing manager for the lab, are high on wireless-enabled transactions because of the privacy and personalization it affords. With Freedom 1 for example, users would key transactions into their PDAs or phones in their homes or while approaching an ATM, simply beam the information to the machine and then wait for their cash.

“We can see that people like the idea of personalizing it, (so that) it’s very difficult to see what the person is doing in the transaction,” Wiggins said. He said phones and PDA are already being used to make wireless purchases around the world, from retail buys in Korea to parking purchase in Israel. “The next logical step from all that is to obtain cash, and in the future it could be tickets, stamps. What about photographs.”

Grossi said ATMs in the future could well serve as Personal Fulfillment Devices, dispensing event tickets, mp3 and cartoon files, and hard copies of maps and important emails along with cash.

“It’s a case for the banks of extending their services,” Wiggins adds. “There’s opportunity for banks to get into areas they’re not traditionally in, that they’ve had trouble getting into.”

But will this technology further divide the haves and have-nots? After all, a bank card is less costly than a cell phone. Wiggins suggested the technology will do more to unite than divide different segments of society.

“There’s been talk of some of the banks in Europe giving phones to people as a means of introducing them to the whole mobile banking area,” he said, adding the technology attracts people on the other side of the equation as well. “If you look at pay-as-you-go-type services in Europe, a lot of those people don’t have bank accounts but do have mobile phones in the form of a pay-as-you-go-type phone. It’s a potential means for introducing people into the banking mechanism.”

On a more global scale, Grossi said that while the Scandinavian are the leaders in adopting wireless technology, developing countries are actually leapfrogging North America, which is hampered by competing wireless standards and existing technology.

“In some of the emerging markets we’re starting to see a lot of activity because they don’t have the legacy payment systems we have in the rest of the world,” he said.

“India has potentially got the ability to get into these things before anyone else because they haven’t even got the banking structure in place either,” Wiggins added.

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