Google on Wednesday announced that it's testing a new payment program called "Hands Free" that lets users pay for goods without every having to reach into their pockets.
The idea behind the program is that anyone can walk in to a store, find what they want and head to the register, requiring only their face and a moment's conversation to purchase something. Hands Free is in a limited pilot program now, available only at select stores in the Silicon Valley area. Google said that is uses a variety of sensors in a users' smartphone, including Bluetooth and WiFi, to detect when shoppers are in a particular store. When at the cash register, the users simply have to say, "I'll pay with Google" and give their initials to the cashier. The store employee, then checks those initials and a picture users have uploaded to their payment accounts to verify that they are who they claim.
According to the company's website, stores never get access to consumers' full credit card information. Users also get a notification when their Hands Free account has been used, as a fraud prevention measure.
Currently, the program is in testing at McDonald's and Papa John's locations in the southern Bay Area of California.
Google released a video illustrating how the process works, showing a woman buying goods with little more than a smile and some magic words. The promotional video from Google has strong echoes of the way Apple first promoted its Apple Pay program, highlighting that the current ways we pay -- cash, credit or the dreaded check -- are just not as convenient as they could be. Why, the video seems to ask, do we still have to fumble around with things in our hands to pay?
It's true that it can be annoying to dig through pockets or purses for a wallet, and that it often seems like the payment process should be a lot smoother than it is. With the advent of chipped credit cards, some shoppers may also like the appeal of paying by phone rather than waiting for the slightly longer transaction times.
But the real push toward mobile payments has come from companies who see the appeal of controlling mobile payments. In addition to payment-focused startups and traditional credit card companies, tech firms such as Samsung, Amazon and Apple have all turned to mobile payments as an opportunity to raise their profile with customers and become more indispensable to users' daily lives.
Samsung has been aggressively advertising its payment system on a television commercial starring comedian Hannibal Burress which highlights the fact that many existing credit card machines already can process the company's payment technology.
Despite that push, Apple Pay currently has the highest recognition when it comes to mobile payments, since the feature is built into every model of the company's flagship smartphone from the iPhone 6 and beyond. Piper Jaffray recently found that Apple's payment system is by far the most requested by merchants. The survey, as reported by Apple Insider, showed Apple handily beat Samsung Pay, PayPal and Google's Android Pay -- which lets users pay with their smartphones -- as the top choice (44 percent) when analysts asked software vendors what systems are most requested.
The jury is still out on how successful mobile payments really are among consumers. A recent survey of 580 iPhone users by the consulting firm First Analysis found that just 20 percent had reported using Apple Pay at least once since December, with just 15 percent saying that they used it often. Those figures were slightly lower compared to the survey the firm ran last year.
The landscape, however, is still a competitive one for businesses. Results from Crone Consulting published Tuesday by Bloomberg showed that Apple Pay has 12 million active monthly users, as compared to 5 million each for Samsung Pay and Android Pay. While that puts Apple well ahead of rivals at the moment, it's worth remembering that both Google and Samsung launched their products nearly a year after Apple did and have grown quickly.
Hands Free demonstrates that Google still has larger plans in this space. And the company said it's also planning a program that works solely based on matching your Google Hands Free picture with an image of your face taken at the register. According to the company, "Images and data from the Hands Free in-store camera are deleted immediately, can't be accessed by the store, and is not sent to or saved to Google servers."