Shops of the future could do away with wallets, cash, credit cards and even contactless payment through mobile phones, as a Finnish startup has created a way to pay with just your face.

Shopping with Uniqul requires nothing more than looking at a camera, but it could be a tough sell to consumers. (Credit: Uniqul)

Helsinki-based Uniqul uses "military-grade" facial recognition algorithms to identify shoppers as their goods are being scanned at the checkout, positively identify them against a database of photographs, and processes their payment; all the shopper needs to do is press 'ok' on a screen to confirm the transaction.

The security of such a system could pose a major concern for shoppers and retailers alike, but Uniqul CEO Ruslan Pisarenko is convinced that his system is more secure than traditional payment methods.

Speaking to IBTimes UK, Pisarenko said: "I think the core thing about safety is that fundamentally, biometrics is a much more secure way to identify a person than giving him a card or a phone [with NFC for contactless payment].

"Uniqul is able to verify that it is you who have been there and made a purchase. As an additional level of security, some of the customers will be offered to enter [a] PIN-code, but as Uniqul identification happens while your barcodes are being scanned, this will not increase time that you are spending on checkout."

The company claims 96.8% of users will not need to enter their PIN as a second layer of security, and the system only confuses a shopper for the wrong person in 0.01% of cases - that's one in every 10,000 cases.

But even if the success rate can reach 100%, security experts believe that convincing customers of its benefits will be difficult.

Uphill struggle

Graham Cluley told IBTimes UK: "I would imagine that they would have an uphill struggle convincing vendors to invest in the system. But, perhaps more critically, it will be a considerable challenge talking consumers around to be comfortable with the idea of shops taking mugshots of them every time they want to buy a KitKat."

The process is claimed to take less than five seconds, as cameras monitor shoppers from when they join the queue to pay, so once they get to the checkout Uniqul has already identified them and is ready to charge their account once the product barcodes have been scanned.

But such a futuristic and streamlined system doesn't come cheap, and users will be charged a monthly subscription for the service.

Those who only use the service in shops within 2km of a user-chosen location would pay €0.99 (£0.86) per month; €1.99 gives access across a specific city, while customers who want to use Uniqul worldwide would pay €6.99.

Pisarenko continued: "I believe that we are a very ambitious company, Our primary goal is to get strong presence in Scandinavia within several months. Apart from that, we are planning to globalise our product as soon as we are ready."

The CEO said that in five days since his company's first press release was published, Uniqul received international interest from the US, Europe, the United Arab Emirates and Australia.

As for concerns over identify theft, security expert Sean Sullivan of F-Secure tells IBTimes UK: "A database of faces does seem kind of scary at first. But then, it's not really facial data, but 'keys' based on scans of your face that Uniqul's algorithm recognises. You wouldn't (or at least shouldn't) be able to reconstruct faces from the data."


There is certainly potential in digitising and streamlining offline shopping, as fellow Finnish startup WalkBase is attempting with its Wi-Fi system which provides analytics of shopper footfall and behaviour by monitoring the location of their smartphone - but getting retailers to invest in either system could be challenging..

As contactless payment through smart credit cards and NFC-enabled phones has shown, consumer uptake in new retail technology is slow, and convincing shoppers that such systems offer a benefit over cash and credit cards is difficult.

Gartner recently cut its predictions for the growth of mobile payments in the coming years, after uptake in 2012 was slower than expected.

The research firm said in June: "We have lowered the forecast of total transaction value...due to lower-than-expected growth in 2012, especially in North America and Africa. Worldwide, people are not purchasing as much because the buying experience on mobile devices has yet to be optimised."

Gartner's prediction for global NFC payments in 2016 was cut by 40% from $38bn to $22bn.

Research director Sandy Shen said NFC payment through a smartphone "doesn't offer any obvious benefits over cash or card payments."

Uniqul will have a lot of convincing to do if it is to succeed in changing the offline payment industry, to one which the customer has even less control over.