Smart credit cards coming to a wallet near you

Eastern Bank said it is the first North American bank to use voice identification technology at customer service centers.
Eastern Bank said it is the first North American bank to use voice identification technology at customer service centers.

You’ve heard about the universal remote. Now several financial technology companies are experimenting with a universal card, aimed at decluterring the consumer wallet.

Eastern Bank, the state’s largest community bank, said it will test a digital card that will enable its customers to put debit, credit, and merchant loyalty card information all on one piece of plastic. Even gym membership cards — anything with a magnetic strip, in fact — could be consolidated into the universal card.

Eastern has partnered with Stratos Inc., a Michigan startup and one of the makers of these all-in-one cards. The bank is starting out small, sending the cards to a handful of customers later this year, and then expanding it to about 500 customers soon after if the initial test goes well, said Dan O’Malley, the chief digital officer for Eastern Bank and the head of its Eastern Labs.

O’Malley, acknowledged that the card is very experimental, and Eastern, which has 400,000 customers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, isn’t sure how it will be received as it puts the card into more widespread use.

“This is the farthest out there in the bleeding edge of technology,” O’Malley said. “We want to see what people think, see how reliable it is.”

Apple Pay, Apple Inc.’s electronic payment system, aims to eliminate credit cards from the wallet by transferring them onto the mobile phone, but Thiago Olson, co-founder and chief executive of Stratos, said the card isn’t going anywhere. Stratos and its competitors, such as California-based startups, Plastc Inc. and Qvivr Inc., which has developed the Swyp card, are trying to flatten consumers’ wallets by making the card more powerful.

“People are in the habit of using [a card],” Olson said. “It’s just a reliable and convenient way for people to pay.”

Eastern is the first bank partnership or Stratos, founded in 2013 by three college friends, including Olson, Chris Bartenstein, who grew up in the Boston area, and Henry Balanon. The company has raised about $8 million from investors.

Stratos uses Bluetooth wireless technology and a mobile phone application for its smartcard. Customers can load an unlimited number of cards onto its mobile app using a card reader that Stratos sends with its card.

Users can select a primary card and three others they use most frequently, which will pop up automatically on the app. Those would likely be the debit, credit, grocery loyalty card, and perhaps card to get into the apartment building or gym, Olson said; other less frequently used cards would be available by searching the app.

A user wakes the card by tapping it once on the mobile phone. With a double-tap, users can select which card they want to use, or change which card they want as their primary card. Then they swipe it, as they would any traditional card.

Stratos is developing updates so that its card is compatible with chip technology, as more traditional cards are becoming chip-enabled, Olson said.

Stratos launched its card in April, charging $95 a year, but Eastern is offering the program for free.

For Eastern it’s not only a a way to get its brand in front of consumers, but also an opportunity to learn more about how their customers spend money. Stratos shares the aggregated information about consumer spending with banks, so financial institutions know when a customer uses their card, as opposed to a retailer’s rewards card, and which is more popular in different situations.