For a lot of bankers, the cameras that come with smartphones are a literal and figurative flash of light - a versatile piece of technology that most consumers are already using for non-banking purposes and a means of depositing checks and paying bills.
But the degree to which such camera-dependent tasks will work depends on the quality of the image - the ability to pick up all of the data needed to execute a transaction. This quality has come a long way over the past couple of years, but there are still challenges, particularly as broader set of documents are used.
Bob Meara, a senior analyst in Celent's banking group, has questioned the quality of images used for mobile remote deposit capture and other applications. As mobile RDC first started to take off, he wrote that producing consistently high quality images with low exception rates under conditions of widely variable lighting, contrast, camera angle, signal strength and steadiness of hand is not trivial. In an interview with BTN in January, Meara said there are broad challenges to using mobile imaging that increase as it moves beyond check deposits into other areas such as bills and application processing.
"My view is that it's not so much the quality of the picture's pixel count...but it's more to ability to get good quality information from highly unstructured forms and doing so with acceptable degrees of usability," Meara says.
Conestoga Bank is among the institutions that are excited by the camera. Hoping to respond to an industrywide trend toward lower branch traffic, the Philadelphia-area community bank is seeking different ways to allow more consumer banking to happen remotely via mobile imaging. Conestoga, which has been renovating its delivery channels for most of the past couple of years through branch redesigns and mobile financial services, offers mobile remote deposit capture, and hopes that model can be extended to other functions.
"It's tough to take a core system on the road with you," ays Lori Adamski, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Conestoga Bank, near Philadelphia."One thing that we would like to do is capture information about a customer to get an account opened [remotely]. We're looking to use a scan of a driver's license to capture a person's information and put that into our core system and into our ID verification system, and have our system return a 'yes' or a 'no' on that consumer quickly."
But there's one holdback. The extensive technology chain that allows the mobile camera to clearly and accurately capture all of the data included on a document, turn that virtual image into text, and then transport that information into an integrated core system is still early stage in the bank's eyes. There's concern about how mobile capture will work when the documents start to become diverse in size and the location of key data elements varies within the document.
"We would love to see that level of imaging technology, but so far it's not there," Adamski says. "But that's the next innovation that I would like to see, because it would allow us to offer a better customer experience and speed account opening."
At U.S. Bank, the confidence in image quality is high enough that the bank was one of the first to move into bill payment enabled by mobile imaging. The bank also provides digital content that's accessed by using mobile phones to read watermarks on corporate reports, which reveal updated marketing and bank program information.
Chris Peper, vice president and mobile channel manager for U.S. Bank, says cameras that take pictures with a two megapixel resolution are the benchmark to successfully pick up data from imaged bills and similar documents as part of a financial transaction. "The majority of the [smartphones] that are out there now have a high resolution camera that can [do a good job] picking up images," says Peper. "That's the first hurdle...the image quality generally speaking is good enough now and our challenge is finding the information that we need that's on the document."
Peper says U.S. Bank uses a mix of internally developed technology and imaging technology from Mitek to drive mobile imaging. The bank is using optical character recognition to spot the important information on a bill, such as the user's name, due date or bill amount. Optical character recognition converts scanned images into machine encoded text, which can then be used to drive a transaction, or stored in the bank's database.
WHAT'S BEHIND IMAGE QUALITY?
Mike Strange, Mitek's chief technology officer, says many bills have barcodes, which mobile apps can scan to augment the data they gather data from images. He says Mitek's imaging technology also picks up layout information as it scans bills, in effect learning where pertinent information is likely to reside on the paper document. While bills may not be as cookie-cutter as a check, they're still limited to a range of designs, fonts and formats.
"Our software looks for information that it recognizes as a bill. And when we are scanning the document, we look for data that's relevant, such as different payment amounts that may be on the same bill - one might be the total amount due, another might be the minimum payment," says Strange, noting that Mitek has patents pending on the enabling technology.
Strange says Mitek's architecture also goes through nearly 20 quality checks for images, looking at factors such as lighting and whether all four corners of a document have been captured.
Don Drew, a spokesperson for Parascript, a data capture company, says all versions of its CheckPlus product perform basic image cleanup prior to recognition. Other products such as Parascript FormXtra include more advanced document pre-processing, which might include rescaling an image, converting an image, template dropout, line removal, box or comb removal and even image or logo removal, some of which are being used in mobile capture applications today. These techniques would be helpful in processing images of mortgage applications, Drew says.
Meara says banks that are using mobile imaging tend to be conservative when determining suitability criteria for image quality - or the threshold at which a questionable image is routed to the bank's back office for review, then possibly sent back to the consumer to take another picture if data from the bill, check or other document hasn't been "picked up" properly.
Given the consumer's expanded role in recording data to execute mobile financial transactions, there's more opportunity for error that has little to do with the quality of the mobile device or related technology. "The consumer may have a thumb over the dollar amount, or there may be a big shadow down the middle of the document that makes it hard to read," Meara says.
The challenge in the future, as banks move beyond mobile remote deposit capture, is how much of a burden should be placed on the consumer to create adequate images, and if this burden either makes the process longer than is convenient or makes mobile image capture less attractive.
"Checks are simple. There's not that much data on a check and it's a pretty standard document...how much of a problem will capturing proper data be when the documents are different and there's more data to be collected?" Meara says.
Bruce Orcutt, a product manager for Kofax, says the imaging company's technology captures an image that captures some of the space around the document, to ensure that if the document is crooked or held awkwardly, it's still photographed in its entirety. For images of mortgage documents, the company performs quality checks almost immediately after the photo is taken, and communicates with the consumer.
"We do it in real time an give feedback to the user if his or her hands are jittery," Orcutt says.
Ensuring image quality can also be a challenge internally, for instance by branch staff that serve consumers.
Zions uses scanners in its branches to capture images of drivers' licenses and other forms of identification. These images are used in account opening, verifying customer information and other applications. Kofax's software is used to examine the data to ensure the image has been clearly captured. If there is a mistake or an incomplete image, the fix can happen quickly.
"If you're a customer, you want to know right away whether this information has been recorded correctly. These corrections used to take up to two weeks," says Rachel Becker, a former IT business manager for Zions.
Zions does not yet offer mobile remote deposit capture, but has leveraged improvements in mobile image capture for internal staff. "The bank has started a system in which employees can use phones to capture images of bills, invoices and receipts to be moved to expense reports," Becker says. She says the bank hopes to expand bill payment via mobile imaging. "The phone cameras have gotten to the point where it's no trouble to get detailed information," she says.
Imaging technology has come a long way, but thorough testing is still a good idea before taking a new application live.