Google goes "hands free" with mobile payments

March 2, 2016 | by Will Hernandez

Some McDonald's locations in San Francisco will pilot Google's Hands Free mobile app that uses beacon technology.

As Google continues to grow Android Pay's user base in the U.S. and beyond, the company is prepared to look beyond mobile wallets at different alternatives such as "hands-free" payments, which combines a standalone app with Bluetooth technology that consumers can use to make and confirm purchases at participating retailers.

Google Wednesday announced it is testing an app called Hands Free in the southern San Francisco Bay area with merchants such as McDonald's and Papa John's.

Hands Free is currently available on Android and iOS devices, and the necessary beacon technology needed to communicate with the app is installed at select McDonald's and Papa John's in the South Bay area. Some local eateries also are involved in the pilot.

"As a company we are perpetually committed to better — better ingredients, better pizza and a better customer experience," said Cynthia McClellen, senior vice president of Global Information Services at Papa John’s International. "We're excited to be working with Google to test Hands Free in our Bay Area stores. It's yet another opportunity to push the possibilities of digital payment solutions for our customers."

Google made it clear in a company blog post that Hands Free is something it plans to offer consumers in addition to Android Pay.

"Since we launched Android Pay, we've averaged 1.5 million new registrations each month in the U.S. alone, and there are now over 2 million locations that accept tap and pay," Pali Bhat, senior director of product management at Google, wrote in a company blog post. "At the same time, we also wanted to explore what the future of mobile payments could look like."

Google is not the first company to experiment with the idea of hands-free payments.

PayPal and Square each launched their own versions of hands-free payments, although Square shuttered the Square Wallet/Square Order app in early 2015. PayPal in 2013 introduced its own beacon hardware that communicates with the company's mobile app, enabling merchants to confirm a user's purchase via the headshot associated with the account.

Google's Hands Free app will work in much the same way.

"When you're ready to pay, you can simply tell the cashier, 'I'll pay with Google,'" Bhat wrote. "The cashier will ask for your initials and use the picture you added to your Hands Free profile to confirm your identity."

Google also will experiment with the use of an in-store camera to automatically confirm a user's identity based on the app's profile picture. Bhat wrote that all images captured by this special camera are deleted immediately.

Google did not respond to a request for comment from Mobile Payments Today, nor did McDonald's.

Bhat told TechCrunch in an interview that Google will take a wait-and-see approach before Hands Free moves beyond a pilot.

"Once we've made all the fine-tuning that potentially we get from the feedback from merchants and consumers, we then are going to start scaling it," Bhat told TechCrunch. "Until then our goal is not to have millions and millions of users adopt."

Google's association with beacons does put the focus back on a technology that has had its ups and downs since Apple brought it to the market in mid-2013. Near the end of 2015, many mainstream publications rushed to declare the technology a dud.

But companies such as Gimbal, Mobiquity Networks, shopkick and others have helped merchants leverage beacons to increase in-store mobile engagements initiatives with incentives such as coupons.

This has led some industry observers to believe beacons will have more impact with consumers and merchants in the next nine months. 

Topics: Contactless / NFC, Handsets / Devices, In-App Payments, POS, Restaurants, Retail

Will Hernandez / Will Hernandez has 14 years of experience ranging from newspapers to wire services and trade publications. Before becoming Editor of, he spent two years as the content manager for, a leading payments industry news aggregator and information hub published by Mercator Advisory Group. Will spent four years covering the payments industry as an associate editor for multiple publications in SourceMedia's Payments Group based in Chicago.
View Will Hernandez's profile on LinkedIn

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