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Japanese city pilots facial recognition payment tech with no mask removal required

This photo taken by Chihiro Sasage shows a Mainichi Shimbun reporter making a purchase using a BioPay facial recognition payment settlement tablet at a shop in Niigata's Chuo Ward on Jan. 25, 2022. (Mainichi)

NIIGATA -- Facial recognition technology for electronic payments that works even when the customer has a mask on is undergoing a demonstration test in this Sea of Japan city.

    The "hands-free shopping street" pilot project, using the BioPay facial recognition payment settlement system, is a joint initiative of the city of Niigata and Glory Ltd., a Hyogo Prefecture-based firm that makes a range of machines for handling money. A rare test of its kind anywhere in Japan and the first ever in Niigata, it is scheduled to run until Feb. 28 in the city's Chuo Ward.

    This Mainichi Shimbun reporter headed down to a lifestyle goods shop in Chuo Ward's Furumachi district on Jan. 25 to see the system in action. Would it really be able to identify me accurately even with my mask firmly in place?

    First off, I had to register a photo of my face and my credit card information on a dedicated website, which took about five minutes. Then it was off to the shop checkout counter. Awaiting me there was not a salesperson behind a cash register, but a tablet computer set up for facial recognition payments. I lined my face up with the screen, and in just 1 or 2 seconds a message popped up telling me, "Payment completed." I thought that with my mask on, it would take the machine several tries to confirm my face, but it was very smooth. "So, that's it?" I wondered, feeling a little odd.

    "Some people probably feel reluctant to use the system because it uses your face, but the actual payment settlement is smooth and so easy to do," said 32-year-old shopkeeper Chihiro Sasage. She added that many customers using the BioPay tablet are women in their 30s and 40s, apparently because it "looks fun."

    The shop is offering customers a set of tea cans if they pay using the system, while some participating businesses are reportedly giving out gyoza dumplings, cups of coffee and other freebies.

    According to the Niigata Municipal Government and other sources, the facial recognition pilot is part of a larger "digital transformation" promotion initiative, and is being supported by the city's proof-of-concept support fund. A total of 10 businesses around JR Niigata Station and the Bandai and Furumachi areas, including restaurants and retailers, are participating. A Glory public relations representative noted that the BioPay system "eliminates the trouble of taking out cash or a card, so you can pay in no time." The firm is aiming to roll the system out commercially in fiscal 2022.

    Niigata and Glory expect the coronavirus crisis will create a tailwind for uptake of facial recognition payment processing as the pandemic boosts demand for services that help consumers avoid close contact. The city and the company also have their eyes on launching completely unstaffed shops that use recognition technology to track every item on the shelves and manage customer traffic.

    "In the future, I hope Niigata will become a business test hub," said Hiroto Miyazaki, chief of the city's growth industry support department. "I want to boost (Niigata's) attractiveness by making it a future city area, with unmanned shops and drones flitting about."

    (Japanese original by Honoka Uchida, Niigata Bureau)

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