Face value in high-tech service: Check in with a selfie

Singapore is jumping on the face-scan bandwagon - to check in at hotels, get food recommendations at eateries and use a ride-share service. The Straits Times tests two systems and finds out if they improve the user experience

Facial recognition technology used to be the stuff of sci-fi movies.

Today, people encounter it all the time - from unlocking their smartphones to going through immigration when they travel.

People's faces are now necessary even when calling for a car ride.

Those signing up for ride-hailing app Grab in Singapore from February this year are required to submit a selfie to open an account - a move said to ensure higher safety standards.

In Malaysia, the selfie rule is being made compulsory for all Grab users by July 12 and it has reportedly already helped to nab two murder suspects.

Such cases arguably make a lot of sense. One's facial features are unique - much like one's fingerprints - so facial recognition technology, if accurate, is a reliable method to identify or verify a person's identity for security purposes.

MORE CONVENIENT TO ORDER

I order one coffee and one teh tarik here almost every day, and this makes things so much faster. I wish other fast-food restaurants had this option too, because I always eat the same chicken burger meal every time.

RETAIL SALES ASSISTANT ANGELA SIM on the facial recognition technology at coffee chain Old Town White Coffee's self-order kiosks that lets patrons scan their face to get dishes recommended based on their order history 

SECURITY CONCERNS

The greatest concern of facial recognition technology is the potential loss of privacy. The consumer should consent to the use of his or her photo or image by the company for the purpose of providing the service.

DR STEVEN WONG, president of the Association of Information Security Professionals

But facial recognition has gone beyond the traditional uses for surveillance and security.

It has seeped into the hospitality industry, for one thing. Restaurants and hotels, particularly in the United States and China, have deployed the technology on-site to identify customers.

In the US, it is available at fastcasual chains such as CaliBurger, BurgerFi and Malibu Poke, which allow customers to either pay for their food or access their purchase history with a scan of their faces.

It is likely going to be widely adopted by American hotels as well.

According to a 2017 survey of 150 hotel operators in the US, 74 per cent said they will use facial biometrics in the next five years to improve their recognition of guests.

In China, facial recognition can be used to make payments at more than 300 outlets of fast-food chain KFC, as well as at various retail outlets such as the Hema Supermarket chain.

At Hangzhou's FlyZoo Hotel, facial scans can unlock room doors and give access to restaurants and the gym.

In Singapore, a handful of eateries and hotels have started using facial recognition as well - said to speed up certain processes for both themselves and their customers.

Dr Steven Wong, president of the Association of Information Security Professionals (AISP), told The Straits Times: "Facial recognition technologies can indeed streamline operations while improving the customer experience.

"With Singapore's vision as a Smart Nation, it is inevitable that more companies will be using facial recognition technologies, and what may seem like novelty now will most likely be mainstream in the future."

At the Suntec City and City Square Mall outlets of coffee chain Old Town White Coffee, patrons can choose to have their picture taken at the self-order kiosks. The next time the customer visits the outlets, a quick scan of the face immediately draws up his or her order history before the system recommends the customer similar dishes to purchase.

Over at casual Japanese eatery Hokkaido-Ya in VivoCity, a very similar system built by TabSquare - the Singapore start-up that created the one at Old Town - has been set up for customers to have quick access to past orders as well.

Meanwhile, at Swissotel The Stamford, 10 self-check-in kiosks in the lobby allow guests to scan their face to authenticate their passport photos. At Grand Park City Hall, guests verify their identity by uploading their selfie into the hotel's mobile app.

NOVELTY OR NEED?

As cool and novel as all of these appear to be, the question remains - are they truly necessary?

For Old Town and Hokkaido-Ya, facial scans are not mandatory. Regular customers who choose to create an account to access their order history can also do so using their mobile number.

Old Town marketing manager Madeline Tay said, however, that facial recognition "saves the hassle of consumers having to key in their telephone number".

She added: "The system is able to recognise your features in about two seconds and this is definitely faster than you having to key in your telephone number. And you may key in your telephone number wrongly."

When this reporter tested the system at Old Town's Suntec City outlet last week, the process was not as quick as she thought it would be.

For one thing, registering your image is not immediate after it captures your photo. It took 30 minutes eventually, but the facial scan worked quickly and smoothly after that.

If this reporter is a regular customer at the outlet, the facial scan option does come across as convenient. There would be no need to go through all the different pages to select individual items because people often order the same or similar things over and over again.

Retail sales assistant Angela Sim, 28, is one such customer who appreciates the convenience of the technology.

She said: "I order one coffee and one teh tarik here almost every day, and this makes things so much faster. I wish other fast-food restaurants had this option too, because I always eat the same chicken burger meal every time."

Still, it seems that most of the cafe's customers remain a little wary of the technology.

Old Town's Ms Tay said that while 75 per cent of the coffee chain's customers have registered accounts at the self-ordering kiosks, only about 10 per cent made use of the facial scan option.

Swissotel said its facial recognition technology, as part of the self-check-in procedure, makes the check-in process faster and more efficient. It also helps with the manpower crunch in Singapore.

Traditionally, hotel staff need to verify guests' faces against their passport photos one at a time, which, during peak hours, can be a slow process.

After the hotel launched the self-check-in kiosks in November last year, the facial recognition technology took over that job.

Ms Kho Yung Chien, the hotel's director of front office, told The Straits Times that in the past, eight staff members would be required to be on duty to handle check-ins. But since the kiosks were put in place, only four or five employees are needed.

She said: "My colleagues are also able to multi-task during their shifts because they are not restricted to just standing behind the counter to attend to guests."

At Grand Park City Hall, the selfie check-in method has helped to reduce check-in times from five minutes a guest to just one minute.

Not every guest is a fan, though.

While most online guest reviews for the facial recognition check-in process at both hotels were positive, a handful who said they are less tech-savvy added that they found the systems difficult to use.

In the case of Grand Park City Hall, being limited to using a hotel-specific app was also an issue. These comments were left on travel booking websites.

Still, facial recognition is here to stay.

The Singapore Tourism Board (STB), which launched the Smart Hotel Technology Guide last year, encourages hotels to become more tech-savvy.

Ms Ong Huey Hong, STB director, hotels and sector manpower, pointed out the benefits of hotels using facial recognition technologies.

She told The Straits Times: "Hotel employees are able to focus on higher value-added work, such as guest engagement, to deliver better customer service.

"With a technological solution in place, the hotel will also have the opportunity to redesign job roles and upskill employees to carry out the new roles."

AISP's Dr Wong hopes that any outlet using facial recognition technology would take data security seriously. Consumers should also always be given a choice to opt out.

He said: "The greatest concern of facial recognition technology is the potential loss of privacy.

"The consumer should consent to the use of his or her photo or image by the company for the purpose of providing the service."