NCR Corp. calls its latest automated teller machine the "Freedom Concept," but everyone who sees it calls it the red egg, which is what it looks like.
The egg - or the Concept, depending whom you ask - is an experiment that NCR hopes will eventually give birth to wireless ATM transactions. The three-foot-long rubicund ovoid sits on a pedestal about four feet off the ground, its infrared eye ready to receive instructions from a personal digital assistant. Unlike familiar ATMs, it lacks a screen; instead, consumers punch instructions into their handheld devices to have cash dispensed.
"If I've got the mobile interface on me, why do I need to put it onto the ATM?" said Tim Wiggins, self-service product manager for NCR, who demonstrated the Freedom Concept at the Marriott Marquis in New York's Times Square last Friday.
The machine is not on the market yet, and probably won't be anytime soon. NCR, of Dayton, Ohio, developed it in its advanced concept lab in Dundee, Scotland, and is taking it on the road to drum up interest in wireless ATM transactions. This week the company and the egg will be in Toronto.
Mr. Wiggins said wireless functionality will be available within a year on some ATMs - the regular-looking ones, at first. "There are over a million ATMs in the world, so you're going to probably see the technologies put into those before you see an ATM out there shaped like this," he said.
Mr. Wiggins' demonstration used his Compaq PDA, which had been loaded with the proper software. He entered a request for $20, typed in his personal identification number, and beamed the information at the ATM's infrared eye. Within seconds the Freedom Concept said in a deep, digital male voice, "Please wait while I am dispensing the cash." Then it did so, and beamed an electronic record of the transaction to Mr. Wiggins' PDA.
Today the technology is infrared, but soon, Mr. Wiggins said, NCR will be able to install Bluetooth wireless technology. With Bluetooth, the PDA would not have to be brought right up to the sensor.
NCR touts the machine's many levels of security. For one, a customer can punch in many of the instructions the ATM needs, such as the PIN and the amount of cash to be dispensed, privately on a pocket device before stepping up to the machine.
"It adds an added level of security to the consumer doing the transaction," Mr. Wiggins said. "It's very difficult to see what I'm doing or how I'm doing it, and I'm doing it before I get to the ATM."
He added, "I can literally walk up to the ATM, do the transaction as quickly as it can dispense the cash, pick the cash up, and I'm gone."
The arresting shape was chosen because it seemed like a physically strong structure. "It's also something that's more attractive to consumers," Mr. Wiggins said. "One of the things we've found, people do love to walk up to it and almost hug it. Who says an ATM has to look like a big, ugly, gray box?"
But if they can hug it, could they also lift it up and steal it? Mr. Wiggins is somewhat vague on this point. "We always hear people saying, 'Why doesn't it have a great, big safe around it?' " he said. "There are ways of using ink dye or turning the cash into mush."
NCR will not divulge the price it might charge, saying the hatchling is simply a concept. A few companies that NCR will not name have already expressed interest in buying it, but for the moment the manufacturer prefers to use the machine more as food for thought.
"What is a card? It's a transaction initiation device," said Ken A. Nicoll, senior engineer in NCR's advanced solutions concept group. "What we're saying, there may be a time in the future when cards per se are not how you do a transaction on an ATM. You'll have something else, which is your transaction initiation device."
Industry analysts said adoption rates would be slow at best.
"I think that it may be ahead of its time," said Brad Adrian, senior research analyst for Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn. "There are lots of things that need to fall in to place before you'd see widespread consumer use," particularly in the United States, where consumers are less comfortable with wireless technology than, say, consumers in some European or Asian countries.
Mark Walter, president of Walterconsulting.com in Lake, Mich., saw some cracks in NCR's reasoning. "Any time you have a business case that's dependent on someone else's technology, it's a little bit more suspect," he said. Personal digital assistants have had "less than earth-shattering acceptance by the average consumer."
Mr. Walter said the red egg might find itself most at home in places where gadget-lovers are most likely to congregate, such as college campuses, or office buildings in high-tech centers.
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