Google Testing Hands Free Mobile-Payment App

Google is launching a pilot test of its Hands Free mobile app, which will let users pay for purchases by verbally giving their initials to a cashier.

Google Hands Free mobile payment app

Google has begun pilot-testing a new mobile-payment application that will let smartphone users pay for purchases by verbally providing their initials to the cashier at the point-of-sale system.

The company is inviting Android and iOS users in San Francisco's South Bay area to try out the new app, dubbed Hands Free, at a small number of participating merchants in the area. Among those who have agreed to participate in the trial run are McDonald's, Papa John's and a handful of local restaurants in the area.

The pilot program is open to users of Android devices running version 4.2 (Jelly Bean) and higher of the operating system and owners of iPhone 4S and later versions. The app, available for download here, contains a list of all participating merchants in the South Bay area. Users will get up to $5 off their first purchase for testing the service.

Some of the participating retailers will also be testing an early-stage Google visual identification technology that involves the use of an in-store camera to confirm the identity of a Hands Free user based on their profile picture in the app. The goal is to enable an even faster checkout process, compared with the one requiring users to verbally say their initials to the cashier, according to Google.

"Imagine if you could rush through a drive-thru without reaching for your wallet, or pick up a hot dog at the ballpark without fumbling to pass coins or your credit card to the cashier," Pali Bhat, Google senior manager of product management, said in a blog post announcing the pilot test.

Hands Free relies on a combination of Bluetooth LE (low energy), WiFi and the location-tracking services on smartphones to detect when a Hands Free app user is at or near a participating store. To pay for a purchase, a user has to inform the cashier of his or her intention to pay with Google. The casher will confirm the identity of the individual by asking for their initials and looking at the profile picture in the Hands Free app.

Neither Bhat nor the Hands Free app's Web page offered any details on how exactly the transaction would be completed after the user's identity is confirmed.

But a previous description of the app, when rumors of it first surfaced last year, suggest that it involves the use of a separate Hands Free payment device at the checkout location. The device will display all Hands Free users located in the store or in the immediate vicinity. When a user approaches the cashier and announces his or her intention to pay with Google, the cashier matches that user with the appropriate profile presented on the device to complete the transaction.

Google has not described how it will protect the mobile app from being misused.

According to the company, users subscribed for the mobile-payment service will get immediate notification of any transaction against their Hands Free account, presumably so they can quickly spot any unauthorized transactions quickly.

According to an FAQ on the Hands Free Website, cashiers can also only charge customers when they are near the store. "The cashier then verifies your identity to make sure that they are charging the right person," the FAQ noted. "You'll also be alerted of any unusual activity. Suspicious transactions won't go through without your approval."

For Google, Hands Free represents yet another effort to spark broad consumer interest in its mobile-payment technologies. When Google launched Wallet in 2011, it was the first out of the gate with a mobile-payment app. Last year the company began rolling out Android Pay, a mobile payment tap-and-pay service it launched to compete more directly with Apple Pay. Google claims an average of 1.5 million new sign-ups for Android Pay every month in the United States and more than 2 million locations that accept the app.

Even so, Google as well Apple, Samsung and others with mobile-payment apps have had less success getting consumers to use their technologies than many analysts had predicted.

On the optimistic side, eMarketer had predicted that mobile payments would triple from around $8.7 billion in 2015 to $27 billion by the end of this year.

However, Accenture suggested the growth could be somewhat less dramatic. In a survey last year, Accenture found that while U.S. consumers are extremely aware of mobile payment options, barely 18 percent use it regularly. That number was just 1 percentage point higher than the proportion of consumers using mobile-payment services regularly in 2014.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.