An upcoming release of Android Pay may have a biometric facial recognition component named “Visual ID," according to a recent report from 9to5Google based on a teardown of the app. This functionality could be an extension of lessons learned from the recently mothballed Google Hands Free initiative, as well as an evolution of other initiatives such as Mastercard's "Selfie Pay."

Mobile payments and biometrics have had a close relationship ever since Apple Pay launched on top of Apple's Touch ID fingerprint authentication system. But even fingerprint authentication adds some friction, so companies like Samsung have been developing iris recognition and other forms of biometrics as a way to further streamline the authentication process.

Chart: The hidden perks of facial recognition

The closest Google has come to facial recognition in the past was its Hands Free concept, which displayed a photo of the shopper to the cashier for verification. This concept resembled a model that PayPal and Square have separately experimented with, but didn't let the device itself play a role in verifying the user by his or her looks. It also relied on human judgment and, therefore, invited human error.

One of the main benefits of facial biometrics is the ability to authenticate someone passively from a distance, compared to other biometric capture such as fingerprint and iris scanning that may be perceived as more intrusive and even Orwellian. This can have benefits in terms of fraud reduction, but raises implications for the customer service environment. Consumers may not tolerate the intrusion if they do not see a tangible and immediate benefit, such as a personalized shopping experience.

Speed can be another factor. Google Hands Free was tested primarily in McDonald's and Papa John’s restaurants, where business margins are dependent on processing as many customers as possible during business hours. Facial biometrics could cut down on the time the cashier spends handling the payment, even initiating the transaction before the customer gets to the register. Many restaurant apps also allow the end user to save a preferred order, which could also mean that the store crew could begin preparing their regular order while the customer is still in line.

But many of these benefits still hold more appeal to the merchant than the shopper.

For mobile payment offerings such as Android Pay and Apple Pay to truly gain traction, they need to be linked to retailer loyalty platforms that capture consumer behavior relating to where, when and what they purchase, and to incentivize repeat business based on this. Facial biometrics could be key to capturing the identity of the end user for all visits, instead of just the ones where they choose to self identify.

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Nick Holland

Nick Holland

Nick Holland is a senior analyst at PaymentsSource. He has previously held analyst roles at Javelin Strategy & Research, Yankee Group and Aite Group.