Robot Servants Put MasterPass on Pizza Hut's Menu

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Robots aren't yet coming to take over, but they will be taking orders — and MasterCard payments — at a handful of Pizza Hut locations in Asia.

In an upcoming pilot, MasterCard and Pizza Hut will deploy Pepper, a humanoid robot developed by SoftBank Robotics Holdings Corp. Though it is clearly a robot, Pepper is designed to be 'perceptive' of the humans around it, using cameras, microphones, vocal recognition and analytics to create an experience that's organic and responds to emotion.

"We're trying to anticipate the world that is changing around customer expectations. The ways that we have been paying for years are changing in just a year or two," said John Sheldon, a senior vice president of MasterCard's innovation management team.

The MasterPass app was built in MasterCard's Labs team in Singapore, and MasterCard sees it as an opportunity to improve service in areas such as personalized shopping, concierge service, in-aisle checkout and buying goods in a store and having them delivered to the consumer's home. Beyond Pizza Hut, MasterCard envisions hotels, banks, airports and other industries that rely on customer service.

Since most of the restaurant staff's time is taken up with orders and payments, "that will free up staff to serve customers in other ways," said Sheldon.

Pepper's motion sensors allow it to move around a crowded room without bumping into people or things. Its 'humanlike' voice and its perception of humans are designed to bridge the conversational gap that is typical between humans and machines.

"Pepper has this ability to 'read' body language and voice inflection of the person it's interacting with," Sheldon said.  "It can provide an 'emotive response.' It's a fun and more humanlike experience."

Pepper has been deployed in Softbank mobile stores as a service device and in some Japanese homes. At Pizza Hut, consumers will initiate an engagement by greeting Pepper and pairing the patron's MasterPass account by tapping the Pepper icon in the mobile wallet or scanning a QR code the robot displays.  A MasterPass-powered app will be accessible on the screen built into Pepper's torso.

After pairing, Pepper can provide personalized recommendations and offers, information on products and assistance in checking out and paying for items. Pepper can initiate, approve and complete transactions via a WiFi connection.

The Pizza Hut deployment in some ways resembles an 'order ahead' mobile app that's become popular at chains such as Starbucks, but with a lot more personality.

"This isn't a replacement for order-ahead apps, which are far less expensive and more utility-oriented," said Rick Oglesby, a partner at Double Diamond Group. "This is more about creating unique experiences and generating publicity by serving consumers in a new way. In the right niche, it makes sense but it won't be a mass market solution anytime soon."

At MasterCard, the Pepper deployment is part of a series of projects and collaborations in which the card network is finding out where its cards fit in an emerging commerce world that will be less reliant on swiping or dipping plastic cards—or even ordering off of a website via a virtual card. MasterCard is placing card accounts inside Samsung's new Web-connected refrigerator, a move that's drawn some early interest from grocery chains.

MasterCard is additionally experimenting with Internet-enabled clothing and other connected consumer devices.  The card network is also leaning on its token-based online commerce security to find new frontiers such as underserved banking markets..

"In most cases we're looking at frequent and necessary transactions for this new devices and options," Sheldon said. "We're looking at the primary use cases that can change user behavior."

The tests are designed to find out where people and merchants are comfortable transacting beyond point of sale terminals, websites and apps—and how new channels mix with existing choices to make payments.

"The clues to success include signs of repeat transactions and referrals for something that is brand new," Sheldon said. "If someone comes over and tells somebody else about a new payment technology, that's a good sign that it's resonating."

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