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Is Wearable Technology the Next Stage in Contactless Payment?

Contactless payment is nothing new. In fact, since its arrival into the mainstream a few years ago, it’s enjoyed a meteoric rise that’s helped it become many people’s preferred method of payment thanks to its sense of convenience. There’s always room for improvement though, and tech and consumer finance companies are constantly looking for ways to reduce friction between the person and the payment. After all, when you’ve got an armful of items and a queue of impatient fellow customers waiting behind you, fumbling about with your smartphone is the last thing you want to do.

Visa is well aware of such issues, and last year it beta-tested a new contactless payment offering: the payment ring, a piece of wearable payment technology that allows people to pay for goods with a ring around their finger. The test was very small and comprised of only the handful of athletes that Visa sponsored at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil (including Missy Franklin, Ryan Cochrane and Daiya Seto). It proved a smart idea. The innovation was helpful for athletes, for whom cash and cards are an unnecessary burden, and the environment was the perfect backdrop: with the busy life of a competing Olympic athlete, convenience and speed are key.

“Visa’s first payment ring puts smart payment technology right on the hands of our athletes for convenient and easy payments,” said Visa’s Jim McCarthy. “This ring is the latest example of how Visa is continuously innovating to deliver on its goal of universal acceptance at the games and across the world.” Added Franklin: “The Visa ring is a great innovation that I know all the athletes competing in Rio will enjoy as it will be great to go from a competition to purchase without having to carry a wallet or card.”

The ring has since been made available to the general public, albeit in a slightly adapted form, and Visa has continued to test and improve by setting up 1,600 point-of-sale terminals and 120 concessionaires at stadiums participating in this year’s FIFA Confederations Cup, which it sponsors.  Costing just £40 ($53), the payment ring uses anonymising tokens to make the payment and can do so without the assistance of your phone or card once it’s been set up. Visa has even worked to make the technology even more innocuous by offering it as a sticker that can be affixed to the back of the owner’s hand.

While such biological integration may be too much (not to mention too unsecure) for some, the payment ring has a very good chance of taking off. It’s small and unobtrusive, and offers a level of convenience that’s been integral to the rise of contactless payment as a whole. There’s even a significant opportunity for brands, who can roll out different, more fashionable, more branded versions of the rather bland edition that’s out at the moment. Much like bespoke credit cards and cheque books, the payment ring could become an item that speaks to a person’s personality and/or status, and becomes sought-after because of that.

It’s unlikely the wearable payment trend will end with payment rings though. Smartwatches are already capable of making payments, and in 2015 Topshop teamed up with Barclaycard’s bPay to create a range of stylish payment bands, phone cases and keyrings that customers could use to pay for goods. “This is a really exciting partnership with TopShop and marks the first time that our bPay chip is being incorporated into a product range from a major fashion retailer,” said Barclaycard’s Tami Hargreaves. “The collaboration shows how the worlds of fashion and technology can combine to create a stylish and easy new way for people to pay using contactless for everyday things.”

The trend has already found traction in the leisure and tourism industry. As we explored in April, Disney and Princess Cruises have introduced band-based contactless payment products for use in their parks and on their cruise ships to create a seamless end-to-end travel experience. “Your MagicBand enables you to travel lighter throughout your vacation,” Walt Disney World’s official website reads. “Use it to enter the parks, unlock your Disney Resort hotel room and buy food and merchandise… so you can simply concentrate on enjoying the fun with the people you care about.”

Simplicity. That’s the key for brands looking to find success in this intersection between wearable technology and contactless payment. With reports forecasting that the number of global connected devices will hit 24 billion by 2020, the need for this simplicity will only grow, so there’s plenty of scope to take advantage. With Visa already making the right moves, brands should look to the company for inspiration and an insight into how customers are responding. Contactless payment may not be new, but it’s evolving fast and showing no signs of slowing down.

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