Virtual reality can often seem like a technology in search of a reason to exist, especially in the world of banking and payments. But RBC sees a lot of potential in developing for VR headsets, even if it does not expect people to do the bulk of their shopping in VR.

The consumer technologies available today are still just stepping stones, and developing for them puts banks and other companies in a strong position to detect and respond to the demands of the tech-savvy consumer, according to Sarah Wilkinson, RBC's senior manager of innovation strategy and communication.

"Virtual reality is only a sandbox platform at the moment," she said at SourceMedia's annual Card Forum, taking place this week in Austin. "It's admittedly clunky [to conduct] commerce on virtual reality. You have to put on a big headset, stick things in your ears to hear things, you have to have a dedicated space so you don't trip over a wire; this isn't the frictionless experience that we all want."

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But it is enough to tell where the technology is going. Google Cardboard, while primitive, is cheap enough to turn any smartphone into a VR device. More robust platforms like Facebook's Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive were developed for high-end gaming and are convincing enough to have viable uses in retail stores today.

When consumers "put on a virtual reality headset and get to experience a product ... [they] are much more willing to make that purchase," Wilkinson said. "They are much more engaged with it, they can see it, they can feel it."

There are also benefits to security. Putting on a headset would seem like a cumbersome way to conduct a transaction, but it also frees users from the need to be guarded about their passwords and other credentials. When the display can't be seen by anyone else, the risk of shoulder-surfing goes away, as does the need to obscure passwords or even prompt for them.

"The big thing that we're seeing is a lot of removal of input and a lot of instant biometric authentication," Wilkinson said.

The HTC Vive, for example, can accommodate eye-tracking lenses that can determine where the user is looking so it can render only the scenes in the user's field of view, she said. This is meant to reduce the demands of the computer powering the Vive headset, but Wilkinson sees this technology as "step one in being able to integrate iris recognition," she said.

The same conversations about immersion and security are happening in other cutting-edge technology areas, such as AI and chatbots, according to Kiki Del Valle, Mastercard's senior vice president of digital payments and labs. Del Valle spoke during the same panel discussion as RBC's Wilkinson.

This philosophy can be seen in Subway's recent adoption of Mastercard's Masterpass wallet in Facebook Messenger, she said.

"If you look at Subway, for example, a consumer who is walking into a Subway store is very much engaged in a conversation with a sales associate ... it's a five step process but it's one that is inherently conversational," Del Valle said. "Imagining that same scenario in a chatbot on Facebook Messenger is not that farfetched."

Even so, the customer must feel secure in that interaction, particularly when it comes to handling the payment, she said.

"We cannot drive adoption if the consumers don't believe that those devices are going to be as secure or as safe as the card itself," Del Valle said. "Security becomes table stakes."

Daniel Wolfe

Daniel Wolfe

Daniel Wolfe is editor in chief at PaymentsSource and a contributing editor at American Banker.