Visa toys with credit card displays

Visa International is experimenting with credit cards that include a small display screen where customers could view recent transactions, bank balances or local currency exchange rates, said Deborah Arnold, Visa's vice president of global consumer strategies.

About 10 percent of Visa's 1.2 billion credit and debit cards in use worldwide already have a computer chip built into them, and that proportion is growing rapidly, Arnold said. The chip can store information that could be displayed on a small screen running across the top of a card, in a position similar to the magnetic strip on the back of most cards today.

Visa expects to have produced working prototypes of the devices in about a year's time, Arnold said, although with security and other technology issues still to be ironed out, it's likely to be a few years before such cards become widely available. In addition, the LCD-like screens being used in early designs are too fragile for everyday use, Arnold said in an interview.

"The flexible credit card display screen has to be solid; something that lasts a long time without breaking," she said.

Arnold gave a presentation about the future of credit cards at the Flexible Displays & Electronics 2004 conference being held in San Francisco this week.

Another issue with the use of display screens on credit cards is cost-effectiveness, she said. "It's all expensive -- the cost of the battery, the display, hooking (the display) up to the chip. The initial cards with these displays are going to be very expensive," she said.

Visa is in the early stages of deciding what information the cards should display. "It's a small piece of real estate, so you have to be careful about what to display," she said.

The banks and other institutions through which Visa delivers its cards will have a say in how much space to assign to the displays and what information services are offered, she said.

Clearly, displaying personal account information on a card presents potential security concerns, and Visa is looking at technologies such as biometrics and passwords to secure access. Banks and end users will help to determine how much security is necessary, and certain information, such as points accrued through loyalty programs, might not need much protection, she said.

In general, cards fitted with a computer chip offer a greater level of security than conventional credit cards, according to Arnold. "Chips can't be duplicated easily," she said.

Showing multiple types of information on a tiny display presents challenges. Information could be displayed in a scrolling format, or buttons could be added that allow a customer to switch between different types of information. Future credit cards may even come in different shapes, allowing for a bigger screen. "There are a wide number of technical ways to solve the problem," she said.

The card displays are being made possible in part by the development of new types of "flexible displays" being discussed by vendors at the conference here. Researchers are looking at a variety of technologies to build flexible OTFT-LCD (organic thin film transistor-liquid crystal display), electrophoretic, plasma, and OLED (organic light-emitting display) displays.

A credit card display could be powered by tiny batteries, like those being developed by Solicore, which displayed its wares at the conference here. These batteries are "ruggedized" for use in smart cards, said Robert Singleton, Solicore's president and chief operating officer.

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