Carnegie Mellon U. Students Use Fingerprint Scans, Not ID Cards, for Payment

Four seniors at Carnegie Mellon University who grew tired of scouring their backpacks to find their student-ID cards every time they wanted a bite to eat have found a new way to pay: their fingerprints.

“We carry around these little slabs of plastic,” says Kelly Lau-Kee. “You really shouldn’t have to carry anything on you that could be lost or stolen anymore. You should be able to pay or ID yourself just by being yourself.”

That’s the idea behind PayTango, which was created by Ms. Lau-Kee and three classmates, and is already in use at several locations on the Carnegie Mellon campus.

The first time students use the system, they swipe the card they would like to match to their fingerprints, type in their phone number, and touch their fingers to a pad to register the print. The system works with any card that uses a magnetic strip, including debit cards, gift cards, and student IDs.

The four students began developing PayTango as a team last fall in a technology start-up lab taught by Luis von Ahn, an assistant professor of computer science who is the mind behind the word-puzzle company reCaptcha. The team’s original idea was to find a way to combine the information from debit, credit, and ID cards onto one card, Ms. Lau-Kee says. But soon they decided to take the project a step further and eliminate cards altogether.

The product’s initial version, which the team presented at a PennApps hackathon in September, was really just an iPad connected to a fingerprint reader, Ms. Lau-Kee says. The team then began to build a custom version of the product, which they used to apply to the Y Combinator start-up accelerator, a three-month program in Mountain View, Calif., that concluded on Tuesday with a presentation to potential investors.

The team now hopes to expand the system to more locations on the campus, as well as to businesses in Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

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