Coming soon

Picture an electro-mechanical device that knows, in advance, when it’s about to develop a “defect” and can take corrective action to fix the problem. A tall order? Not so. Thanks to work being done at NCR Labs such a “self-healing” device will soon be a reality, according to Mark Grossi, who heads up NCR’s Advanced Concepts Lab in Dundee, Scotland.

Grossi, himself, is a researcher of repute, having brought forward several key technologies, including mobile and voice-activated ATMs, iris scanning and identification, alternative power supplies that can be used in remote locations and much more. The NCR executive was in Toronto recently, presenting at the Innovations Conference organized by Mississauga, Ont.-based NCR Canada Ltd. He spoke to IT Business editor-at-large Joaquim P. Menezes about some of the fascinating projects coming to fruition at the company’s labs.

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Your R&D department is … everywhere

Mark where are the various NCR labs located and what’s their research focus?

Apart from Scotland, we have labs in the U.S. (in Atlanta), the Philippines, Hong Kong and Beijing. This global presence allows us to look three to five years out at emerging technologies worldwide, understand consumer trends, and based on that create scenarios for the future. The next step is testing out these scenarios with customers. We also host events — such as the one you’ve seen today at our offices here — to expose these ideas, and feed them to the NCR global organization. Think of the labs as the innovation engine of our company … in a sense, we’re the headlights of NCR.

Tell us about one project your researchers are working on right now that couild have far-reaching implications.

We contain our research work within four broad areas — otherwise you could try to boil the ocean with ideas and technologies.

The areas are: cloud computing, competitive intelligence and algorithm development, consumer experience, and mechatronics devices. [Mechatronics blends multiple disciplines such as mechanical engineering, electronic engineering, computer engineering and control engineering in order to design, and manufacture useful products].

One really interesting project we’re working on right now is being able to predict a failure in an electro-mechanical device even before it happens. So rather than just take a statistical approach, we’ve worked with a couple of university partners to build what we call a “biologically-inspired algorithm set.”

The initiative is focused on creating an artificial immune system that mimics the human immune system. It applies [that intelligence] to a mechanical device — one that knows when it’s about to become “ill” and takes corrective action to fix itself. So it’s a radical way of understanding mechanical failure ahead of time that tremendously speeds up replacement-and-repair out in the field.  In fact, it effectively reduces device downtime to zero.

In what industries/environments would such self-healing systems be most useful?

Our NCR lab projects are somewhat industry agnostic. We try to develop technologies that enhance the user experience across a wide variety of sectors — financial, retail, airlines and more. The idea is to foster widespread usage, as widespread as possible. The artificial immune system is an example of a technology that has plenty of cross-industry application potential.

Researchers are often torn between their desire to devote some time to blue sky research that advances knowledge in a field but offers no immediate returns — and pressure to show quick results and measurable ROI to keep their funding intact. Is this a challenge you experience at NCR labs?

It’s a great question and one my boss asks me every week. In our case, we don’t do blue sky or exploratory research. At the end of the day, our work tends to be very hands on, very practical, and focused on business value.

All our research projects — depending on their nature — also have to be completed within a time-frame.. In the case of an emerging technologies, for instance, we look three years ahead. In this day and age that’s just enough time to research and develop an application and bring it to market. Technology timelines and development cycles are accelerating, as we all know. We no longer have the luxury of a 20-year innovation program.

A few years ago I interviewed you about NCR’s work in the biometrics space. I’m sure much has happened since then. Can you talk about your recent innovations in this field?

At that point we were just at the beginning of exploring our technology. Since then I’m happy to say we’ve begun a rollout of biometrics-based ATMs and self-service kiosks and checkouts. The technology has matured to a point where we can use fingerprint technology in an unattended environment. But more so, we’re starting to see consumer acceptance.

Are there geographies where acceptance of biometrics is more widespread?

Yes. Interestingly enough it’s around the emerging markets. Again, that’s based on legacy. A technology such as biometrics tends to be more quickly and readily accepted in areas where there’s been no predecessors — such as card-based applications. So biometrics has gained popularity in places such as China, and India, where we’ve seen a huge uptake..  

In these areas, is biometrics used in tandem with other authentication technologies?

There are several options. We always advocate a dual-phase authentication system. For example, in one of our rollouts for a bank in a rural area in Brazil, we replaced the card at the ATMs. Instead a PIN (the user’s social security number) along with biometrics is used for authentication. This saves the bank the cost of card distribution, which used to be really high.

In some of our implementations, biometrics is used as an additional security check. Banks that are our customers deploy biometrics to enable higher-level or more complex transactions. One really simple application is requiring biometric authentication to withdraw more than the standard amount from an ATM. Let’s say the regular withdrawal limit is $200. If you provide your fingerprint you can withdraw up to $500.

In Canada we have Interac system, which enables consumers to use their banking cards at most ATMs — even of banks other than their own. Would Interac be a barrier to biometrics’ being used as an authentication technology here? For that to happen, wouldn’t you need to have all the major banks on board?

The Interac system has come about in the past 10 – 15 years. Prior to that you were with a specific bank and you did all your ATM transactions on their machines. So yes, because of Interac — and the fact that this whole industry here has evolved around card and PIN technology – [adoption of biometrics in banking] is a bigger challenge for existing markets than it is for emerging markets. At the end of the day it’s an authentication system. So the interchange mechanism can still work. All it means is some mapping on the backend system – which does take time, effort and cost. 

Another technology we talked about some years ago was near field communications (NFC) to enable mobile transactions. What kind of work is NCR doing in this area?

Interestingly, NFC has also started to appear in some emerging markets. What it promises is the opportunity to move vital data and information between mobile devices and fixed devices, such as ATMs and kiosks. Ultimately the electronic wallet apps on your phone can be linked via the ATM. It gives you the option to then use your phone, rather than cards, as your payment device.

For example, in a high-traffic environment, such as a subway transit system, you could use your phone to pay bills. Your phone can accomplish much more than a contactless card — it’s more intelligent device so you can put value-added apps on it, turning it into your personal self-service device.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the end of ATMs and kiosks – it’s another channel that lends itself to very interesting uses. For instance, before going shopping I could use my phone to browse what’s in the store, and set my preferences. When I get to the store, the system knows where I am, and sends me vouchers with shopping recommendations. Ultimately, when reaching the self-service checkout, I could fulfill the transaction, and provide vouchers there that are on my mobile device. This whole integration will open so many opportunities that we aren’t aware of yet. What we’re doing at NCR is laying the rails for interaction between these channels. 

Mark, on another note, when chatting earlier you told me how big the video gaming industry is in Dundee, and how skills possessed by game developers are so valuable in a research environment.  Could you talk about that?

The new generation consumers will be the millennials – the 18 – 25 year olds. They’ve grown up in this world of computer games and synthetic characters. They’re very aware of this technology. When you start to think about what the environment would be five years down the line, we may see self-service transactions happening in a totally Second Life kind of environment. There is a very real parity between user interaction in games environment and self-service. We work very closely with the games producers within Dundee and also other parts of the world to bring some of these kids on board, and benefit from their ideas on what self-service interaction may look like in five to 10 years’ time.

Joaquim Menezes is Editor of Follow him on Twitter, and join the IT Business Facebook Page.

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