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Voice banking's ascent and other takeaways from CES

Voice banking, once thought to be a niche market, appears to be gaining momentum, at least if last week's Consumer Electronics Show is any gauge.

HSBC and Google jointly announced at the show that they’ve been working for the past month on the Google nest hub interpreter mode, a smart-screen device that translates conversations in real time.

“Voice is becoming much more ubiquitous,” said Jeremy Balkin, head of innovation, retail banking and wealth management, HSBC US. “It’s inevitable that the customer desire to use voice as a channel is going to intersect with financial services. We see that, we believe that, and we wanted to do something about it.”

Balkin said HSBC is the first and only bank to pilot this technology, which is being tested in Manhattan branches. About a third of HSBC’s retail customers in the U.S. are “internationally minded,” he said.

“We know that 22% of Americans speak a language other than English. That’s about 67 million people,” he said. “Clearly financial inclusion is an issue for everyday Americans. Imagine what it's like if you're from another country or you speak another language. The barrier is even higher.”

Google also showed a related product at the show: its new Bluetooth earbuds, called Pixel Buds, which can work with Google Translate.

“I can talk to somebody who's Chinese and not know Chinese and they can talk to me not knowing English and the conversation gets translated in real time,” said Todder Moning, product innovation director at U.S. Bank. The earbuds can also turn down background noise in a restaurant so the wearer can better hear the person they’re with.

“It's an example of what 5G is going to enable as it rolls out over the next few years,” Moning said. “It will connect way more devices. It will have lower latency, it'll be faster.”

Following is a look at these and other tech innovations unveiled at CES, what bankers thought of them and how they could impact financial services:

Samsung's Ballie device showcased at CES 2020
Samsung's Ballie and other voice interaction devices
At CES, Samsung rolled out (pun intended) a tennis-ball-shaped device called Ballie that follows the user around and accepts voice commands. (Amazon Alexa and Google Home, by contrast, have to be plugged in and stationary on a table or countertop.)

“You're telling it your to-do list, you're telling it to turn this on, turn that off,” Moning said.

But the the verdict is unclear on whether it will catch on. For his part, Balkin liked Ballie.

“It follows you around like a little dog and you can talk to it,” he said.

But Moning mused about Ballie's long-term value.

“It seems really fun for five minutes, but what if you lose your ball? What would you do?” he said.

Both agree, however, on the long-term value of voice banking. U.S. Bank has been working on voice interaction for years.

“We were the first bank to have voice on all three of the major platforms: Alexa, Google Home and Siri,” Moning said.

It was among the first to offer voice passwords. It’s experimented with controlling mobile apps with voice commands. Moning expects voice interaction to be popular in cars, to do things like purchase items mentioned on the radio.

Taking this idea to the next level, a few vendors, including Next Mind and FocusOne, demonstrated smart bands people wear on their heads to control machines with their thoughts. That has potential, Moning said.

“If you're sitting with somebody, you don't need to have them hear what you’re commanding,” Moning said. With their mind, the user could direct their car to turn left or call someone.

“I think that's a big leap forward,” Moning said.
Todder Moning, product innovation director at U.S. Bank, examines a "smart mirror" at CES 2020.
The connected home
The connected home has been promised for some time. But now there is growing optimism it may actually be realized.

“The smart home is going to have big implications for maintenance of the home itself, and that'll free up time for home dwellers,” Balkin said. “If you have a smart fridge, it will order food for you because it knows when your supplies are running low. I think we're still a way away from that becoming ubiquitous. But clearly voice devices are the first steps towards that smart home in that smart living, and then it's connecting it to other aspects of other home in life.”

Stephanie Hammes-Betti, senior vice president of innovation design at U.S. Bank, said that while people have used the term “connected home” for a while now, the technology has fragmented.

“You have a home experience in one room but it doesn't always carry over to the next room, or only part of your appliances or part of your house is connected,” she said. “The vision that has been set by a lot of the big players here, like Samsung, LG, and Bosch, is it really is connected. We're getting to what a real connected home experience could be, where your appliances, your lights, your TV, are all working with each other and communicating to you.”

Hammes-Betti was impressed by a closet management system that categorizes and analyzes all the clothes in a user’s closet, with a smart mirror that recognizes the wearer and includes an avatar that tries on clothes on the user’s behalf. Taking into account that day's weather and the user's calendar items, it makes recommendations. The avatar models outfit options; the user can swap out items of clothing or accessories.

“Sometimes there's a plague in my morning of, what am I going to wear?” Hammes-Betti said. “This helps the user through it.”

Banks could provide the payments behind anything a person buys through their smart devices, including a smart mirror like the Lumine from Lululab, a spinoff of Samsung Electronics' incubation program C-lab, which Moning tested, above. They could also bank small businesses that offer connected home services.
Apple Pay
Practical payment tech
Smart devices that can send and receive payments were the most pragmatic technology at CES, Moning said. U.S. Bank has already been working on technology that allows payments to be made automatically from a car, including at a gas pump. The bank has also built tokenization to work with all the Pays — Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, Android Pay — that connect with devices like Garmin watches and Fitbits.

“Ford had a great smart city example, where the autonomous cars are beginning to talk to each other and to the streetlamps,” said Hammes-Betti. “There were a lot of examples where you see the dashboard of the car and the experience for the people inside of the car: temperature control, music, emails. You'd also get an alert that you're about to pass the scene of an accident, and a caution to be careful, or be rerouted.”
Todder Moning, Dominic Venturo and Stephanie Hammes-Betti
Smart glasses and snackable content
Moning, Hammes-Betti, and Dominic Venturo, chief innovation officer at U.S. Bank, played with augmented reality glasses the first day of CES.

“There seems to be more holographic technology in the augmented reality experiences,” Moning said. “You're sitting somewhere and you can go have an experience that makes you interact with something in a different place.”

One pair of glasses they saw have speakers near the ears then tilt down.

“So glasses aren't only heads-up displays, they'll also be about sound,” Moning said. “When you put those two things together, that's really powerful.”

Moning was also a fan of Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s new startup, Quibi, which creates quick streaming videos.

“Think about watching a movie on your phone, but in chapters,” Moning said. “This has the potential to change the way people snack on content and if they get used to being able to snack on content, then how can the bank use that? Creating an estate plan is a big long thing, but if I can break it into 10-minute chapters that you can snack on when you want, that can be really interesting.”
PowerEgg X unveiled at CES 2020
Drones and robots
By now, drones and robots have become a staple of CES. But Moning said the quality of the robots and drones has improved.

“In the early years of the show, the robots looked like science experiments with wires and all kinds of stuff, now they're looking pretty slick and they're doing what's beginning to look like really practical use cases,” he said. “We saw the one that loads and unloads delivery vehicles. Starship Technologies has a mix between a robot and a land drone that delivers food or parcels — that last mile supply chain use case.”

LG demonstrated a restaurant staffed by robots: One washed dishes, a couple cooked ramen noodles, others picked up trays and brought them to tables.

Balkin especially liked the robots that made pizza.

“In New York, where we have the 99-cent slice, I often worry how with inflation and labor costs, will the 99-cent slice live into the future?” he said. “Maybe robotics and automation will sustain that.”

HSBC has deployed its own robot, Softbank’s Pepper, in several branches to greet customers and answer basic questions.

Moning acknowledged that banks have not found many use cases for drones yet.

“But PowerVision had one called PowerEgg X that’s a selfie camera and also a drone,” he said. “It integrates with technologies like AI to keep your face in the frame, stabilize the image, and follow you around. So it could film me doing activities.”

Banks could use this for appraisals, to monitor staff doing cash runs, to chase after an ATM thief, and in myriad other ways.
At CES, Hyundai and Uber unveiled a flying taxi prototype
Tech from left field
The wildest technology Moning saw was the urban air taxis from Hyundai and Uber.

“Uber is trying to do ride sharing that’s almost like the flying car, finally,” Moning said. “It actually looks like a vertical takeoff plane.”

Another striking offering was the Neon digital human, a lifelike avatar from Samsung research subsidiary Star Labs.

“They're super real looking and it's just interesting,” he said.

Hammes-Betti noted the realism of the movements of the artificial humans’ eyebrows, wrinkles, cheeks and dimples.

“That definitely made it more human but also had a high creepiness factor,” she said.

This technology could be used to set up artificial video service representatives who can work 24/7, never get tired and constantly learn, Moning pointed out.

“But Americans are smart, cynical folks,” he said. “It's going to be hard to get people to trust that.”

U.S. Bank tested video service representatives on college campuses about five years ago. It was before its time, before the age of FaceTime and Skype.

For Balkin, the oddest offering was a robotic dog that was meant to look like the well-known Boston Dynamics robotic dog.

“It was a Chinese company that built an imitation of what Boston Dynamics has,” he said. “But as a lover of dogs and robots, this was a bit weird.”