Soon everyone

It may seem bizarre now, but talking to a computer about your service questions will be par for the course in the near future, an expert says.

And this ability will dramatically improve many of our regular transactions, according to Mark Grossi, head of research and development at Dayton, Ohio-based NCR Corp.

An innovator par excellence Grossi himself can be credited with bringing forward several key technologies including mobile and voice-activated ATMs, iris scanning and identification, and alternative power supplies.

A pioneer in promoting self-service systems worldwide, the NCR executive says putting a human face on these technologies encourages people to use them.

Imagine how effective it would be, he says, to ask a computer a question rather than sift through the text version of a company’s frequently asked questions. 

One way of extending this human-like interface and fostering self service is through Avatars, or virtual characters, the NCR executive says.

Grossi says avatars offer people a simple way to understand or navigate a complex online environment. “Avatars” in Second Life, the Web-based 3D virtual worlds developed by Linden Research Inc. serve such a function, he says.

At NCR research labs the focus is on using avatars as a replacement for the technical manuals that people don’t read, Grossi says.

“Does anybody know how big the user manual is on a PlayStation 3? The reality is it doesn’t exist.”

Are you being self-served?

Victor Garcia, chief technology officer at HP Canada in Mississauga agrees that avatars will foster the adoption of self-service systems.

He cited examples of how this technology can and is being used effectively to personalize common transactions – such as depositing money into an ATM.

Typically, making a deposit in an ATM is more difficult than withdrawing cash, Garcia noted. “There are several steps – collecting your money, entering the correct amount into the machine, sealing it into an envelope.”

He said to make it a bit easier for users, at some ATMs – in India and the U.S., for instance – an avatar appears on screen and demonstrates what needs to be done.

Moving forward, he says, these systems will be refined further and avatars will have a human-like appearance. They will have smiling faces and make eye contact and even have conversations with users.

“When does the next flight to Las Vegas leave?” is a question you would be able to ask such a system, Garcia says. “These complex questions can be deconstructed.”

Grossi suggests over the past few years there’s been a huge mindset shift that’s leading people to more readily accept and even welcome self-service systems – such as ATMs and airport check-in kiosks.

This change is being driven by the millennial generation (those below 25 years of age) and there’s no turning back, the NCR executive says.

Security at your fingertips – literally

Improving ease of use is not the only goal of a self-service system, Grossi says. People also need to feel it is safe.

To accomplish this, he says, in the near future a combination of biometric authentication and contactless card readers are likely to used at banking machines.

Some examples of each are already in the field.

For instance, he said many ATMs in India and South America use a fingerprint as a form of authentication in place of a card or a PIN number. Several thousands of these machines have been rolled out in South America, and the continent has been a major source of growth for biometrics technology.

“We’ve constructed a very secure fingerprint solution,” the researcher says. Fingerprint reading methods, he says, are further ahead than other biometric systems such as retinal scanning, and have already put to use on laptops and phones. It’s also the leading biometric for security purposes.

Consumer understanding of the fingerprint reading system is greater – and “a very simple procedure,” Grossi says. “The cost point is also very low compared to a retinal scan.”

HP has included fingerprint security systems on many of its laptops already, Garcia says. It replaces the need to enter a password and is also a lot harder to steal or fake.

He says HP is also working on a project dubbed “Hey, IT’s Me.” The idea is to identify people through a self-service system that involves multiple methods on many devices.

Whether using voice, signature, or finger print, the aim is to access a secure system through many channels.

“From Blackberrys to iPhones, more people are relying on mobile devices for information,” Garcia says. “You have to ensure you have biometric encryption, as well as management and monitoring of that piece of hardware.”

While mere mention of biometrics tends to raise the suspicions of privacy advocates, Grossi says there’s no need for such misgivings. ATMs using this method encrypt the thumb-print and send that unique code to be stored in the database, which avoids storing an image of the finger-print itself.

“You couldn’t work back from that template to get a fingerprint,” he says.

Many people have experienced an ATM destroying their banking card. Through some error of man or machine, the computer decides to not spit the card back out and instead puts it through the shredder. That leaves the user no choice but to get a card replacement.

With banking card that is based on a RFID chip instead of a magnetic strip, such scenarios could be avoided, Grossi says. The consumer can enjoy a touch-and-go transaction and never run the risk of having to let go of their card.

“We’re going to see contactless cards,” Grossi predicts. “It’s been promised for about 10 years. Now payment card providers are starting to deliver them.”

Smaller and more versatile

Contactless cards would mean far fewer ATM components, Grossi notes. Card-reading devices involve large mechanical systems with belts, gears and other big physical mechanics.

“You can replace all that with an aerial.”  

He predicts the change will spark a trend towards miniaturization across many self-service technology machines, and ATMs in particular are going to shrink in size over the next few years.

“It’s not quite at the iPod level,” he says. “But about 15 years ago the machines were the size of a large safe.”

Portable ATMs  would come in handy in rural regions, where a single machine could be moved around in a vehicle to be used at different locations at different times, the NCR research chief said.

That way a larger area and population can be served without the need for many machines. Some rural regions of India are doing this now.

“The amount of money that changes hands in that area is significantly less, but equally valuable,” Grossi says. “They still need to have an ATM, but on a different scale than the West.”

Moving forward, self-service technology will be manifested through a single device that includes strong security, contactless card capabilities and a helpful user-interface, Grossi says.

And when this happens, he says it may lead to convergence across sectors – and the lines between industries will begin to blur.

He cites the crossover of retail companies into banking as an example. For example, PC Financial offers banking services in Canada enabling customers to conduct transactions through CIBC bank machines and over the Internet, with very few physical locations.

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