Other than unlocking your iPhone, facial recognition technology has so far garnered little mainstream use. But things are starting to change. According to a forecast from Adroit Market Research, the international market for digital identity solutions will grow at a 16 percent CAGR by 2025 to reach $33 billion, and Asia-Pacific is expected to have the highest growth rate.
In Vietnam, many organizations already see digital identity as a natural next step in providing enhanced customer experiences. Among them are VietinBank and VinGroup, both using algorithms developed by Wee Digital — a pioneering technology company providing facial recognition solutions for banking and retails industries.
To meet the company’s founder and CEO Christian Nguyen, we head to Wee Digital’s snazzy office near the airport, which features technology straight out of a sci-fi movie, a friendly robot named Weezy and plenty of whizzy gadgets that are Christian’s stock-in-trade. A serial entrepreneur with several highly successful technology companies to his name, Christian has over 10 years of experience in digital banking and user-experience technologies.
In this interview, we ask Christian about Wee Digital’s 15-year-long journey, the prospect of ID-less banking and for his estimate on how soon Vietnam becomes a cashless economy.
What was the biometrics payment landscape like when you first started? How has the industry evolved since then?
We registered Wee Digital as a legal entity about 3,5 years ago. But the core team of engineers has been working side by side for close to 15 years now, focusing on improving user experience in the financial world. So we’ve been around!
Biometrics is not a new technology, of course. Fingerprints, for example, have been used for identification purposes for at least 30 years, mostly by the police and immigration authorities. But until recently, there was no mainstream application for biometrics. It’s when you have industry titans like Apple embrace new technology (Touch ID and Face ID), the ball really starts rolling. With biometrics, we have only just glimpsed the future, yet the technology’s life-changing potential is already evident.
What problem is Wee Digital addressing?
We are focused on simplifying the process of identification and verification of identity. Every one of us has a unique physical identity and we aim to digitize it and to drastically reduce the time it takes to identify a person. One field of application is banking. In fact, Vietnam’s biggest bank, VietinBank, had already implemented our technology for seamless identification and payment. The entire process takes no more than a few hundred milliseconds.
My family’s background is in finance, so I’ve always had a deep appreciation of the role the financial institutions and financial markets play in society. Especially in a developing economy like Vietnam. Making banking more accessible to more people will improve the livelihoods of millions. When you have access to money, it means you have access to better services. This is my passion and what inspired me to found Wee Digital.
How many MVPs did it take to arrive at the current iteration of Wee Digital?
In my field of work, I would say there are code versioning MVPs, not product MVPs. Wee Digital sits on a vast reserve of knowledge and know-how that took us 15 years to amass. From the very beginning we’ve specialized in data modeling, and if we take this as a point of reference, then our first MVP was a company I sold to Jakarta Futures Exchange – a market prediction algorithm.
With digital identity solutions, especially as this technology goes mainstream, there are privacy concerns. Which is understandable. But similar to how sharing holiday snaps on Facebook has become second nature to many, facial recognition will become just as mundane, after the initial pushback. The technology is extremely secure. If with a fingerprint we have data points on a surface of about 1 cm to work with, with faces that area is at least 20x20 cm. So, statistically speaking, the probability of misidentification is extremely low. Today the algorithm works with a 99.97% accuracy.
Are you looking forward to the arrival of 5G?
Definitely! The fifth generation technology will open a totally different world. In my field of work, latency is very important. Today, it takes 200 milliseconds to be identified. With 5G it becomes instant. In fact, we won’t be able to improve on the speed after that, unless we soon come up with a way to make payments by means of telepathy, that is!
A Wee Digital transaction is initiated when a customer flashes a smile. Why choose this activator?
Actually, you don't have to smile, unless you want to donate VND 1,000 to charity. This is our way to encourage customers to give back to the community. Per transaction, it's a small amount, but with millions of customers using our technology every day, we can really make a difference.
The digital payment/tech industry is packed with competitions. What are you doing to stand out?
We operate in an open market where competition is normal. We might have a first-mover advantage, but now is definitely not the time to get complacent. And yes, the last three years we’ve enjoyed phenomenal success. Among our clients are VinGroup, for whom we’ve implemented facial recognition at all Vinpearl properties, as well as Vietinbank, the biggest bank in Vietnam, with tens and millions of accounts and users.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that we have one of the best technologies for facial recognition in the world. Not only the algorithm itself, but the way we connect and how fast the technology works once implemented. And I have my team to thank that for. For 15 years they’ve been following my lead, sharing in my passion and vision. Wee Digital wouldn’t be where it is today without them.
What are your plans for the company in the next 1-2 years?
In the first 2-3 years after the launch we had to prove ourselves. The next step is to strengthen the relationships we have with Vietnam’s leading banks and help them manage their flow, identity and clients through biometrics. We are also providing personalization solutions: imagine going to your bank’s branch and not having to present any form of paper ID. That’s the future.
But where the company is heading after that is retail business. What we see in Thailand and South Korea today, the proliferation of convenience stores, is what Vietnam will look like in 5-10 years. And our technology goes along with this retail evolution. I am talking about using facial recognition technology in microtransactions, like paying for a can of soda, not buying a car. Not yet anyway.
Eventually, you will be able to walk into a car dealership and be instantly recognized as a repeat customer, with all your preferences and past interactions with the brand pulled up in an instant. Vinpearl hotels already have this capacity thanks to our algorithms: everything from your favorite minibar snacks to what time you usually request your wake-up call. They are going for complete customization of experience, and other businesses will be following in their footsteps before long.