In the near future, your credit card may contain a tiny powered LCD screen programmed to display single-use passwords, account balance and eventually even a three-dimensional, 360-degree video of you for identification purposes. It may even speak in your own voice.
Say goodbye to static plastic; cutting-edge card manufacturers are literally changing the face of credit cards to make them something they've never been before: interactive.
This summer, MasterCard launched its next-generation Debit Display card on both its MasterCard and Maestro brands in Turkey with a fall MasterCard pilot set for Great Britain.
The card looks like your standard-issue debit card with two additions to its face: a small rectangular LCD screen in the upper right corner and an integrated "press" button in the lower right. Press the button and the card generates a one-time pass code that helps prevent fraud in card-not-present [CNP] online and telephone transactions.
"Cards were born from cardboard, they've been 'mag striped' and 'chipped' and now we enter their silicon age, with an LCD display and touchpad opening up a multitude of possibilities," says Eric Tomlinson of MasterCard Europe.
Visa's next-gen card features an LCD screen and 12-button keyboard on the obverse (or mag-stripe) side. Enter your PIN on the keypad and the screen displays a single-use pass code for CNP transactions.
MasterCard also is piloting a next-gen keyboard card that can display current account balances when inserted into an ATM or point-of-sale terminal.
Hot cards for a cold economy
Why the sudden arms race for enhanced card functionality?
The debut of interactive cards reflects in part the drastically changed landscape for credit card issuers following the beat-down they received by the Credit CARD Act of 2009. Having lost lucrative income steams to reform, card issuers are searching for ways to recoup their losses.
What could be better than a sexy new interactive card that also fights fraud?
"There's always a drive to differentiate one card from another, and when markets tighten up, there's even more demand to get your brand on more cards than the other guy," says industry consultant Brad Paulson of Thor Engineering. "There's a huge drive for brand recognition, to make your card unique."
Then there are the breakthroughs in miniaturization that has enabled manufacturers like NagraID Security, the Swiss company that pioneered the next-gen cards, to insert an LCD screen, battery and memory chip into the card itself. They've put a demonstration video on YouTube.
"It's difficult," Paulson says. "If you've ever broken your laptop's screen, you know that LCD panels don't like to be twisted and turned or they tend to break. How do you put them in a card without wrecking them when you try to glue everything together? It's a fairly complex problem in assembly, but they've improved a great deal over the last couple years."
And never underestimate the marketing power of a shiny new product, especially when the old one has fallen on hard times.
"I don't know if it's a value to consumers, but I know somebody in marketing is trying to get it to work and then he'll convince people that it's important for them to have one," Paulson chuckles.
Marketing aside, card companies have a bottom-line stake in new technologies that shore up card security. A host of new anti-fraud technologies join display screens to make it easier for card issuers to thwart fraud.
The new multilayer strategy involves embedding the various substrate layers of a laminate card with features that work together to make verification easy, but replication difficult. These include:
- Color-shifting inks and films, similar to those in use on some U.S. currencies.
- Microtext: The microscopic print in these background layers are only legible under certain magnifications.
- Holograms: Useful for instant visual verification.
- Ultraviolet inks: Popular on national ID cards, this technology only shows up under a UV light.
- Retroreflective images: These images only appear under a focused light source.
- Floating images: These images seem to be suspended or "float" below the surface of the card.
In June, Bank of New Zealand announced it had patented Liquid Encryption Numbers (LEN), an anti-skimming software that automatically changes the numbers on a payment card's magnetic stripe each time it's used. The technology not only helps locate cloned cards, it also eliminates the need for the issuer to block and reissue a card to prevent fraudulent charges.
Lenticular printing, the process whereby different print layers make an image appear to move when the card is tilted, has largely been used for marketing purposes. But it, too, may have a role in the multilayered approach to card security.
"It's already being used for real functionality rather than just pizzazz and marketing," says Paulson.
Lights ... action ... sound?
It's too soon to tell when the next-gen interactive card will reach these shores. For one thing, its functionality is being tested on the European EMV (for Europay, MasterCard, Visa) smart card platforms with chip cards. But Paulson says they should work fine on America's mag stripe networks.
"When you use your mag stripe card, it gets swiped but that card reader needs to communicate with the banks to identify you and identify that you have an appropriate credit limit to charge what you're charging. A chip card works the same way with the same network; it just communicates differently. If you're going to put an LCD panel in there, there is no problem to just have the software kick (the account balance) up there. That's trivial," he says.
In Paulson's view, the bigger challenge for U.S. card issuers will be to design a set of new card features that capture the American public's imagination in the same way that Capital One's Card Lab did with its Spaghetti Jimmy custom photo campaign.
Recent card manufacturing conferences have featured card prototypes with LED lights that blink when they come in contact with a card reader. Technologically, Paulson says full-motion 3D video and even sound (think those singing greeting cards) would be child's play.
"If you've figured out the electronics to get a picture in there, why not?" he says. "That's simply a matter of memory and processing speed. The trick will be to find an appropriate market in which to introduce it, to create the mass demand. I'm sure somebody in a marketing department is already working on it."
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