Visa Europe is collaborating with Central Saint Martins College to determine if the true innovation in wearable computing is less about the "Internet" and more about the "things."
"What we are seeing so far in wearables is you take an existing design concept and a wearable concept and crowbar payments in there somehow," said Nick Mackie, head of contactless at Visa Europe.
But fashion is notoriously seasonal, and a design that might have appealed at the start of a development cycle may be stale by the time it comes to market. To stay ahead of fashion trends, Visa is working with students and graduates of Central Saint Martins Industrial Design program in London to come up with concepts that marry clothing, accessories and access to financial services.
The partnership is conceptual; the ideas at this point are not actual products but could inform Visa's future wearable payment strategy.
"Visa Europe was once a card-first company, but with Apple and Android and Samsung, there is a lot of activity in the NFC space," Mackie said.
These tech companies have all dabbled in fashion, and not just in the designs of their phones. Apple, Google and Samsung each have their own smartwatch platforms with an emphasis on customization.
Visa Europe expects contactless technology to be a standard element of wearable devices by 2020, Mackie said. It could even be something consumers come to expect, much like they expect every digital watch or clock app to have a built-in alarm function.
"Each iteration takes us a step further away from the card, so the networks need to be at the forefront of evolution so that they can adjust to the next round of technology," said Rick Oglesby, head of research for Double Diamond Payments Research.
The three top concepts to come from the Visa Europe/university collaboration were designed with form, rather than function, as the starting point.
"None of these [designers] has a technology background," Mackie said, adding Visa Europe is demonstrating the concepts with its technology partners in Europe. "What we do is marry the technology that we're working on with their design capabilities, which are centered around what people are comfortable with and want to use."
The top concepts are "small change," or a device that allows people to transfer loose change onto an app accessed by a wearable; a wearable payment device that helps the user organize and budget expenses at the point of sale through the user's movement; and a brooch that powers a combination of social media and payments.
The world of wearable payments is still very much a blank canvas, with each new technology inviting more innovation. Payment companies have experimented with Google Glass, Apple Watch, wristbands, gloves and numerous other items.
Some products, such as Disney's MagicBand, evolved from a card-based system to a wearable one to incorporate fashion and improve adoption. The Kerv smart ring, a Kickstarter project that can make payments, has just two designs but is soliciting ideas for more color combinations from its early backers.
"Until there is success and ubiquity in wearable devices, there will be lots of experimentation, and the networks will be well served to keep on top of that experimentation so they can be prepared for the next generation," Oglesby said.
Regardless of the form, Mackie said the move toward wearable computing is an opportunity for card issuers to make payments a more intimate or personal experience.
"Wearables can do something that mobile phones can't do," Mackie said. "Mobile phones can't measure the skin or body," but wearable devices such as the Apple Watch and fitness bands can measure certain traits.
The is a huge variety of forms and logistical challenges in wearable payments today, suggesting that the right combination of fashion and finance has not yet been discovered.
"As to whether Visa's effort will generate something significant and real is unknown," said Thad Peterson, a senior analyst at Aite Group. "It's equally likely that there's someone sitting in a basement somewhere building something that will change the world."