Listen to interview with Mark Grossi

Length: 14.31 minutes. Audio file type: mp3. Size: 5.81 MB

Hello, this is Joaquim Menezes, Web Editor of IT World Canada, welcoming you to another edition of Voices. Our guest today is Mark Grossi, chief technology officer at NCR’s Advanced Concepts Lab in Dundee, Scotland. Over the years, Mark has functioned as the “innovator par excellence,” bringing forward several key technologies, including mobile and voice-activated ATMs, iris scanning and identification, alternative power supplies that can be used in remote locations and much, much more. Mark was in Toronto last week demonstrating the use of fingerprint biometrics in self-service ATMs at the RBC Innovation Symposium held in the city. In this exclusive interview with IT World Canada, Mark describes his challenges and opportunities as an inventor and some of the really cool technologies that he and his team have brought forward in the recent years.

Mark, perhaps we could start with your telling us a bit about the NCR Advanced Concepts Lab in Dundee, Scotland: how large is this facility? How many dedicated R&D staff it has? Do you have multiple research teams at the lab?… and so on and so forth.

Okay, yeah, I can certainly describe that. In Dundee, in what we call R&D, we have about 400 development engineers…mainly mechanical, engineering skills, electrical, electronic and software. And that percentage is growing in terms of…all those software engineers as we go through the evolution of the ATM. So it’s quite a significant investment in R&D. And on top of that we also have other centres in different parts of the world. So, for example, in India we have a software centre growing…And I think it’s about 100-110 software engineers right now. But within the establishment in Dundee, we have the research lab (this is the Futures lab), which is my area of responsibility. And we look just a little bit further into the future than the regular development guys. The regular development folk, working with ATMs, will see the next 18 months…that kind of time frame. My responsibilities are to look 3 – 5 years into the future.

I’d like to shift tracks a bit, and get you to tell us more about your own career path. So how long have you been with NCR, and has your focus always been on new and innovative technologies?

Aha, I’m going to have to give my age away there. I graduated in ’79 at Dundee University, and I joined NCR that summer as an electronics designer. I was part of NCRs ongoing education, and I retrained as a software programmer and then as a systems engineer. I was one of the main engineers in what we call the sub generation of ATMs, during the 80s. My area of expertise was in communications. So I wrote the protocols and built the hardware for the ATMs to connect and to the different communications environments…such as SNA, HDLC and towards the end TCP…[which was] beginning to emerge. As we went into the 90s, I was asked to be NCRs representative at Bell Labs, when we merged with AT&T. That was an interesting five years or so, because it opened my eyes to…how to do advanced development, how to do research, how to drive a patent process. The most exciting one then was video conferencing because it was just beginning to emerge. We built video conferencing and ISDN together, and created the world’s first ATM with a video conference to the bank manager. When we were split out from Bell labs we set about creating our own mini-version of Bell labs if you like.

The way that you’ve described your role, it seems to me that you have to combine two areas of expertise: one is R&D, but the other is a more practical marketing aspect. And I believe that one of your specialties is introducing emerging technologies into the commercial marketplace, and that you’ve formalized a methodology for that. So can you cite an example to illustrate some of the common challenges that would be encountered when commercializing a new technology and give me a sense of how you’ve dealt with these challenges?

We started working on something called deposit technology about five years ago, which was tellers that take bank notes and deposit them into the machine without any envelope. Now that required imaging technology, and media handling technology. The barriers to entry were very much around that technology at the time…because things like note recognition – not just static note recognition but how do you keep note recognition up to speed with the rate of change of fraudulent notes. So thinking about that process…thinking about that technology was a big challenge. But the biggest challenge of all – and it still is a challenge – is getting consumers to adopt the technology and use the technology. And that’s going to be the pacing element for that technology to get to market…It’s education of consumers.

I’d like you to talk about some specific technologies that you and some folk at NCR have demoed here in Toronto in previous years..and what’s happened to these technologies, many of which seemed really cool at the time. For example at the RBC Innovation Symposium in 2003, I believe, you demonstrated Avatar. So tell us about this technology and whether it can be used as a complementary solution to fingerprint biometrics that you demonstrated at this year’s RBC symposium.

As a complementary technology….I think you can combine the technologies and provide some kind of solution but in its own right Avatar technology will change the consumer interaction model. We were demonstrating its use in an ATM in a complex transaction, and trying to create a more humanistic interface. And as with all technologies, it’s going to evolve at different rates and in different channels and different industries. The Avatar technology has taken off big time in the mobile phone business right now, right across Europe and in Japan. It was quite common to have an Avatar on your telephone. On the ATM, we’ve seen some interest. And specifically from India. Just now they don’t have so much of a pre-conceived legacy…in India with Avatars. And again this is a symptom of these technologies as they come to market. You’ll see pockets of activity and then expansion takes off…or it doesn’t.

Now in 2002, you’ll demonstrated mobile ATMs….I believe the unit was called HARP (Handy Access in Remote Places). The value proposition was that they could be quickly installed in special event locations, in remote locales, were table mountable, could be used on a free standing frame. So what’s happened to HARP? Did the idea ever take off? Are these units being used anywhere in the world?

Yes. That’s a really interesting one actually, because when we initially demonstrated and created HARP it was to fulfill some of these value props you just mentioned. And the portability was a big deal and installability was the other big deal. What happened to HARP after 2002? Again it was India. We took it to India and created a portable ATM, which was a HARP-type of unit. It was a slightly bigger ATM. We we put it in a van, and it was used to deliver cash along the outskirts of the major cities. And that grew a whole new opportunity there.

Yesterday you demonstrated fingerprint biometrics and I was reading an August ’99 article about Stella and Bud, the voice-activated ATMs that utilize iris scanning for security, and I believe you can carry on a two-way conversation. So two questions: one, was the technology for this also developed at the Advanced Concepts Lab in Dundee and two, what’s happened to iris scanning for self-service banking. You talked about fingerprint biometrics being a

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