Royal Bank of Canada has long been enthusiastic about payment technology that most other banks usually see as long-term projects.

But whether it's voice command payments or heartbeat authentication or virtual reality, RBC exec Sean Amato-Gauci insists there's a present-day demand for financial services with high-tech enhancements.

"Our strategy is not to be first with everything, but to find the innovations that can be relevant to how consumers are using our services," said Amato-Gauci, executive vice-president of digital, payments and cards at RBC.

An RBC ATM
Bloomberg News

Person-to-person payments are the latest use case to get the high-tech treatment. Mobile P-to-P transfers have more than doubled their share of overall P-to-P transfers at RBC in the past year, and across the industry P-to-P is seen as a gateway to broader use of digital payments and financial services. As consumers habits increasingly favor P-to-P, the bank is getting more aggressive in encouraging further use, waiving fees and adding Apple's voice assistant Siri.

The trend in P-to-P seems to run counter to the broader adoption of mobile payments, where consumer adoption has been largely underwhelming. Consumers have generally used mobile payments less than banks and retailers expected despite a few clear success stories such as the Starbucks app.

PayPal's Venmo P-to-P app has sparked interest in mobile payments, particularly among younger people. And that has spurred banks to action. In the U.S., the bank-led Early Warning launched its new brand, Zelle, in a relaunch of its clearXchange platform.

As is the plan for Zelle, RBC has broader financial services in mind for Siri integration, including a broader deployment for general customer service and banking functions.

The second step for Siri is the credit card interactive voice response program, which is in the early stages, and a more broad deployment in contact centers later this year.

"Through Siri, you can authenticate with a thumbprint, which is seamless, and we're looking at adding the technology to our messaging program as well," Amato-Gauci said, adding RBC was testing a small-business payments iMessage initiative.

Messaging and voice recognition are among the steps RBC is taking to move authentication and execution away from keypads to make mobile transactions work faster.

Voice User Interface is an important component of the evolution to fully integrated and automated financial services, said Thad Peterson, a senior analyst at Aite Group, noting Siri, Google Home and Amazon Echo are changing consumer perceptions of voice UI and leading to services that can accomplish tasks with almost no friction and minimal consumer interaction.

"Couple the ability to conduct transactions with artificial intelligence and predictive analytics and one can see, just over the horizon, a world of a fully digital companion that frees the customer from a lot of the hassles of everyday life," Peterson said.

RBC also deployed other emerging technology to reduce the reliance on keying into a mobile interface. The bank uses virtual reality to enhance marketing content delivery and redemption, and biometric technology that relies on heartbeats to confirm users. RBC was one of the first banks to adopt Host Card Emulation to provide carrier-agnostic mobile payments and made an early move to provide an alternative to Apple Pay by developing its own contactless payment app.

The bank doesn't want to cede the momentum toward mobile by creating pauses in the experience, particularly as other options expand. Venmo is coming to stores, for example, and PayPal is adding Siri for voice P-to-P payments. Apple has opened Siri to external developers, creating a potential race to advance P-to-P transfers to a model that uses verbal commands and messaging to move money.

"As part of the evolution, we're really trying to be in the client's path, part of their daily digital habits for transferring money, and eventually for performing basic banking functions," Amato-Gauci said.

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