Wearables – a Novelty or a Driver?

by Sue Balatoni 0

At a recent HCE Payments conference attended by Helixion there was an interesting debate about what form factor would drive contactless payments forward: mobile or wearables. One opinion was that it would not be the mobile phone but “wearable devices” such as smart bands. It created a quite a debate here at Helixion.

Wearables are definitely a hot topic. The Apple Watch was the first wearable device with real kudos. But how many people do you know who has one and how many of them actually still use it? We know a few but it seems after the initial novelty wore off their Apple Watches are now languishing in drawers and cupboards rather than being flashed about on wrists.

So what about smart bands with payment functionality built in? Does the fashionista really want to sport a smart band with their designer outfit – would that smart band really go with your D&G or Tom Ford outfit? We aren’t so sure – although in fairness neither are we so lucky to have D&G or Tom Ford outfit in our wardrobes to test the theory! But in true Helixion spirit we decided we should try using wearables for making payments and see how they fitted in with our own lifestyles.

Two smart bands were ordered – in fashionable white and cool black. They duly arrived and then the fun started. We needed to get money loaded onto the band first before rushing out to the shops. Now, here at Helixion we are no slouches when it comes to technology but seriously – getting money uploaded onto the smart bands via the companion app was not as easy as it should have been for either of us. It took nearly 3 days to “persuade” the app to load money onto one of the bands. All a little bit frustrating in our opinion.

Then we tried to put the bands on – also not so easy! We needed help fastening them around our wrists. But, once on they looked ok with our work attire. Then we ventured out into Edinburgh to use them. Both of us made successful payment transactions at contactless terminals. So in that regard they work.

But what about the payment experience? For my colleague buying his lunch, it was quick and simple though he did complain about the band getting caught in his sleeve cuff. In the supermarket I still needed to go into my bag to get my purse out to get my loyalty card. I found myself handing over the loyalty card whilst reaching over to the terminal with my other wrist to pay – I could have tied myself in knots!

I didn’t chose to wear it when going out socially as it wasn’t what I wanted to adorn my outfit with (and we’re not talking fashion designer gear here!). The band was left at home, immediately making it non-functional. And that was the biggest problem we found, remembering to put the band on. Without it there is no ability to make any payment.

So what is our verdict? Our experience wasn’t quite the easy set-up and go we expected. Although the payment action itself worked well, we still needed to use our mobile phones to check transactions, the balance and to top-up. Does this highlight that the wearable can only be a secondary device tied to and limited by its mobile companion app?

We remained convinced mobile phones will have the edge in the wider market as payments can be combined with loyalty apps and voucher schemes to create a simple one stop shopping experience all in one device. And compared to forgetting to put on a smart band – how many of us forget our mobile phones?

However, we can see smart bands working well at specific events such as a festival or conference for example.

[Talking of smart bands – there’s even one which claims to be the world’s first biometrically authenticated, wearable credit card payment using one’s heartbeat. Crikey – what happens when you suffer palpitations we wonder]

Beyond smart bands like those we tried, there is a growing market in jewellery incorporating payment technology from rings; bracelets to even earrings (although not convinced how practical earrings are for making payments – we’ve yet to see head height contactless readers installed anywhere!).

Payment technology is also being integrated into clothing. The British designer Henry Holland has been working with the Visa Europe Collab to combine fashion, wearables and payments for the first time. Closer to home here in Scotland, Scottish outfitters Lyle & Scott has partnered with Barclaycard to create what they say, is the world’s first contactless jacket. It works through having a bPay chip sewn into its sleeve cuff (but we what we want to know about are the laundry requirements!).

Wearable jewellery and clothing with payment technology may sound cool and for occasional use there will be an initial novelty factor – just like the Apple Watch. But we do not see it as a longer term mainstream option. You can’t check your account transactions or balance on a bracelet, ring or sleeve cuff. With your mobile phone, you get everything that these other technologies offer and more – plus it is not defined by the occasion or what you choose to wear.

That is why we believe people will ultimately choose to use their mobile over other form factors to make payments.

I’ll leave you with a final thought – an American company is working on syringe-injectable microchip implants for humans which will allow payment transactions to be made. So maybe one day all we will need to do is wave our hand over the reader. But perhaps like me – you may not be so keen on being “micro-chipped” like the family pet……….