Among the most ambitious and important technology events at the Atlanta Olympics this month will be Visa's smart-card project--the first large-scale experiment with cash card technology in this country.
Visa will issue about 2 million cash cards, which, unlike traditional credit cards, each contain a microprocessor chip storing a specific cash value. The $10, $20, $50 and $100 cards can then be used at selected telephones, gas pumps, fast-food restaurants and movie theaters, with the purchase's value deducted from the card when the customer swipes it through a machine.
The use of cash cards as an alternative to grimy bills and clunky change has been touted for more than a decade as an efficient way to simplify many types of transactions. And it has begun to catch on overseas: More than 30 countries have programs underway that accept smart cards as a cash alternative, said Jerome Svigals, an electronic-banking consultant in Redwood City, Calif.
Visa, MasterCard and British-based Mondex are conducting global tests of both the cash card and a smart card that can hold many other kinds of information as well, such as health records and driver's license numbers.
"This is a lot like cable TV: It will be rolled out in major metropolitan areas first and there will be a lot of cards issued, but we won't see high acceptance right away," said David Weisman, director of money and technology strategies at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.
Visa hopes the Olympics project will spur interest in the idea and yield valuable market research data, though company executives say they are breaking basic marketing rules by having the trial at such a large and public event. "When you do a pilot, you're supposed to go to a small community where you can control outside factors," said David Melancon, Visa vice president of corporate communications. But "the upside of it is that the eyes of the world will be on our product."