Wearable payments are gaining momentum and the projects that tend to be the most successful are those that allow for a personal touch.
That’s why Lucie Davis, a design student at Central Saint Martins university in London, has gained so much attention from her recent end of year project that took false fingernails and attached a contactless chip from the Oyster fare cards used in The Underground.
The project -- and the surrounding media attention -- demonstrates that wearable payments have become more than just experimental. As recently as 2014, during a hacker conference in New York, Adafruit Industries showcased NFC tags shellacked to fingernails, but the project was seen as decidedly futuristic.
The RFID-enabled fake nails have the same functionality as the contactless Oyster card, allowing users to tap in and tap out of public transportation governed by Transport for London and refill the account with more money.
“I spent so much of my time on the Tube back and forth from university and I wanted to create something that allowed people to engage more with their surroundings,” Davis said. “I want to bring these everyday objects a little closer to us, to bring meaning and value to these objects.”
And to bring more value to wearable payments applications, Davis says customization is key. And the financial services industry agrees, although it’s been more slow moving in that area where consumers expect immediacy and access.
Most wearables have only a handful of choices when it comes to personalization. For instance, while the band of the Apple Watch can be customized, there’s a standard size and shape, plus many millennials see watches as a thing of the past because of the proliferation of smartphones that display the time on their lockscreens.
Disney’s MagicBand, a bracelet that allows visitors entry into the theme parks and can also be used to pay for meals and souvenirs, is a bit more fun. Visitors can choose from eight different colors for free, then buy snap-on decorations depicting their favorite characters. And just last year the theme park introduced character-themed bands and personalized bands for an extra charge.
“These objects become us,” Davis said. “The society we live in at the moment is all about personalization.”
This will be especially important for banks to remember when designing wearable technologies. Current bank-led wearables have very conservative design choices.
While the Royal Bank of Canada last year said the simple, single use wearables weren’t a good fit for consumers, limited-use wearables like MagicBands and Fitbit fitness trackers seem to garner more attention and success than those that perform multiple functions.
The popularity of London's contactless fare system is set to spread to other regions as a result of a deal Transport for London entered with Cubic Transportation Systems, announced this month. But the interest in the Oyster nails can also be attributed to the prevalence of contactless payments throughout London, not only for transportation, compared to the technology's use in most U.S. cities.
The Oyster nails were part of Davis’ final collection after studying jewelry design at the university. Other pieces in the collection include a compressed sponge and Swarovski crystal ring that expands when it touches water, as well as laser-engraved enamel pins like fruit stickers. In Davis’ eyes, the sponge can be used to wash dishes and the fruit pins can be worn after a person buys and eats the fruit.
It’s playful, sure, but also serious. Davis wants to give traditionally decorative objects a second, practical purpose.
The Oyster nails definitely stole the show, she said.
“I want people to re-engage with their daily routines, savor every moment and soak up their surroundings,” Davis said. “It gives the wearer a really active role in these everyday activities.”
While the nails may seem like just a fun, if not silly art project, Davis recently got a note from a woman whose mom has Parkinson’s Disease. The woman was praising the design saying her mom has trouble finding her regular oyster card in her purse which leads to people behind her getting annoyed.
Davis’ Oyster nails could provide an easier and more accessible way for the woman’s mom to pay for her public transportation.
While the nails are not currently a consumer product, Davis said she was in discussions about where to go next with the design with Transport for London. But her options are still very much open.
"Customization is a big part of wearables' success but also there's something else in it, there's certain environments that are disproportionately important and in London that's the Tube," said Dave Birch, director of innovation at Consult Hyperion.
Several years ago, Londoners found out they could dissolve Oyster cards in nail polish and be left with the chip and antenna, Birch said. People then started playing around with attaching the chips to other objects including a five pounds note and a Harry Potter wand, he said.