Will Mobile Payment Morph Into A Less Cumbersome Form Factor?

Written by Evan Schuman
June 18th, 2009

With the flood of information now available on mobile phones, there comes the question of how practical today’s form factor is in a retail environment. Was watching a video of a talk given a few months ago by Pattie Maes from the MIT Media Lab (thanks to TechImage’s Lawren Markle for the heads up) and it raised quite a few questions that should make m-commerce retail execs feel very uncomfortable.

Maes makes the point that the data being made available to today’s smartphone is fine, but it’s rarely practical to reach into one pocket to access. At a conference, for example, “You don’t shake somebody’s hand and then say, ‘Can you please hold on for a moment while I take out my phone and Google you?’ When you go to the supermarket and you’re standing there in that huge aisle of different types of toilet paper, you don’t take out your cellphone and open a browser and go to a Web site to try and decide which of these toilet papers is the most ecologically responsible purchase.”

Based on some of the wonderful demos she showed at the TED event, there are quite a few better form factors to consider for mobile content. Wearing a tiny projector and a camera as part of a necklace—all interacting with a smartphone in her pocket—she demoed some of the potential alternatives, such as a student walking into a book store and having the system recognize a book cover and then beaming onto the book cover the Amazon rating along with—my favorite part—review excerpts from people you had previously identified as your favorite reviewers. Open to a page and it displays more data about whatever that page discussed.

In a grocery aisle, the system recognized products and displayed—right on the product—various Web-discovered information. Perhaps price comparisons could be next, seamlessly presented right onto the product? The image of a phone keypad was beamed onto someone’s hand, which would then work as a phone.

It’s a lesson that retailers—and marketers—have to relearn every few years. Why try and force consumers to change their behaviors to accommodate the devices you can create, when the opposite is much more reasonable. MIT has a long and proud history of technological innovation. But it sometimes takes someone from academia to push retailers to step out of their comfort zones. And to also get them to stop trying to force consumers to step out of theirs.


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