Like many strategic initiatives, U.S. Bank's new project started in the bank's boardroom—and for a very long time, it stayed there.

The Minneapolis-based bank has been using mobile and digital watermark technology internally at board meetings to add multimedia elements to what would otherwise be static reports. It is now extending that technology to shopping and payments.

The bank plans to test the system in early 2014 with a small sample of merchants, says Dominic Venturo, chief innovation officer for payment services at U.S. Bank. "An advertiser or brand can add a digitally watermarked photo and add an audio stream or a video broadcast," he says.

The software can also initiate purchases by scanning an image in a printed ad or sensing audio cues from a radio or television ad. U.S. Bank is also testing watermark technology for use in stores.

"You can put the item in a shopping cart, and can choose things like size or color, or buy it and have it shipped," Venturo says. The bank's role is to manage the mobile app, securely store user credentials and process payments for the retailer, he says. U.S. Bank works with Monitise and Digimarc on its mobile technology.

The bank's project is part of a trend of strengthening the ties between marketing and payments.

"We think there is an opportunity to simplify the mix of [retailer content] and payments…to make all of these things happen in the same place," Venturo says.

Other initiatives underway at the bank include an expansion of a voice command mobile app that U.S. Bank began testing earlier this year. Users speak commands as a microphone icon appears in a corner of the bank's mobile app.

In tests, Venturo says the bank found consumers were willing to ask out loud for information such as account balances.  "We didn't think that would work, but there are places that people can ask for that information that are more private, and it's easier than typing that into the mobile device," he says.

The same logic may apply to passwords, Venturo says. "We're required to have complex passwords, and people often ask for four digit PINs for mobile apps," and a four-digit PIN is not as secure as a long password, he says. If an app accepts spoken credentials, consumers may be willing to choose more complex passwords.

USAA also supports spoken commands in its mobile banking app. 

U.S. Bank has also experimented with location-based technology and augmented reality. Its app displays a more visual map of a branch or ATM location. As with digital watermarks, U.S. Bank plans to develop payments and shopping technology that use the mobile phone's location capabilities to create new shopping experiences. "We are working in those spaces to create a seamless experience for shoppers," Venturo says. "That won't always look like a bank product."

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