Google Tests Hands Free Mobile Payments For Android, iOS

Google's Hands Free app, for Android and iOS, lets users make payments without lifting a finger.
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It's a miracle that commercial transactions get completed at all, at least as depicted by Google in a video promoting its new Hands Free mobile payment technology.

The process of handing legal tender to a cashier entails dumping a pocketful of coins and crumpled bills on the counter with an apology. Wallets are so stuffed with receipts that cash can't be found. Payment terminals fail. Pens run out of ink. Pocketbooks lie hidden within purses enclosed in handbags, nested like Matryoshka dolls. Fingers fumble with credit cards as if handling hornets.

In this post-dexterity world, where the basic manipulation of physical objects has become too much to bear, Hands Free has obvious utility. Hands Free offers a way to pay by credit card (or other payment method associated with your Google Account) without using your hands to initiate payment through a mobile app.

Android Pay, Google's mobile payment platform, is not involved. That may be for the best, since, as research firm Timetric recently noted, Apple, Google, and Samsung "have failed to reshape the payments industry." The firm says that in China, Alipay and Tenpay dominate the mobile payment market, and outside of China, the leader is PayPal.

The firm, however, suggests that Apple Pay and Android Pay are well-positioned to become market leaders for in-store mobile payments (as opposed to remote mobile payments). Hands Free offers another avenue in that direction.

"[W]e … wanted to explore what the future of mobile payments could look like," explains Google senior director of product management Pali Bhat in a blog post. "Imagine if you could rush through a drive-thru without reaching for your wallet, or pick up a hot dog at the ballpark without fumbling to pass coins or your credit card to the cashier."

In fact, you can go beyond imagining this utopian future. You can live it, if you happen to (a) have a compatible Android or iOS device with the Hands Free app, (b) be in vicinity of San Jose, Calif., and (c) to find yourself in one of the small number of McDonald's, Papa John's, or other eateries (specified in the app) where the technology is currently being tested.

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When it comes time to make a purchase at a participating store, you can announce, "I'll pay with Google." If your hands happen to be occupied by, say, an infant, or if your wallet, like George Costanza's, could burst at any time, you will have the opportunity to appreciate being able to make a digital payment without using your digits.

Initiating the transaction has nothing to do with your voice, however. The cashier will ask for your initials and authenticate you by matching the provided letters and your appearance to the picture and initials in your Hands Free profile, data made available to the point-of-sale terminal via Bluetooth low energy, WiFi, location services, and other phone sensors that testify to your identity and proximity.

At a subset of its already limited set of pilot sites, Google is testing visual authentication technology, which would relieve the cashier of the responsibility of determining whether the customer declaring "I'll pay with Google" matches the displayed picture.

In a nod to the privacy implications of image recognition, on its website Google says that images and data from the Hands Free in-store camera is used only to confirm customers' identities, is inaccessible to store employees, is deleted immediately, and isn't sent to Google's servers.

However, if you're really concerned about privacy, stick with cash. The setup process for the Hands Free app indicates that the app tracks your location constantly. That may be necessary if the app is to be available the moment you announce your intent to use it, but it does have implications for privacy, not to mention battery life.