Visa International is experimenting with credit cards that include a small display screen where customers could view recent transactions, bank balances or local currency exchange rates.
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About 10% of Visa's 1.2 billion credit and debit cards in use worldwide already have a computer chip built into them, and that proportion is growing rapidly, said Deborah Arnold, Visa's vice-president of global consumer strategies.
The chip can store information which could be displayed on a small screen running across the top of a card, in a position similar to the magnetic strip on the back of most cards today.
Visa expected to have produced working prototypes of the devices in about a year's time, although with security and other technology issues still to be ironed out, it is more likely to be a few years before such cards become widely available.
The LCD-like screens being used in early designs are also too fragile for everyday use.
"The flexible credit card display screen has to be solid; something that lasts a long time without breaking," she said, adding that the use of display screens on credit cards is also costly.
"The cost of the battery, the display, hooking [the display] up to the chip. The initial cards with these displays are going to be very expensive."
Care also needs to be taken about what to display, Arnold said. Banks and other institutions through which Visa delivers its cards will have a say in how much space to assign to the displays and what information services are offered.
Displaying personal account information on a card presents potential security concerns, and Visa is looking at technologies such as biometrics and passwords to secure access. Banks and end users will help to determine how much security is necessary, and certain information, such as points accrued through loyalty programmes, might not need much protection.
In general, cards fitted with a computer chip offer a greater level of security than conventional credit cards. "Chips can't be duplicated easily," she said.
Showing multiple types of information on a tiny display presents challenges. Information could be displayed in a scrolling format, or buttons could be added that allow a customer to switch between different types of information. Future credit cards may even come in different shapes, allowing for a bigger screen.
Researchers are looking at a variety of technologies to build flexible OTFT-LCD (organic thin film transistor-liquid crystal display), electrophoretic, plasma, and OLED (organic light-emitting display) displays, she said.
A credit card display could be powered by tiny batteries, like those being developed by Solicore. These batteries are "ruggedised" for use in smart cards, said Robert Singleton, Solicore's president and chief operating officer.
Agam Shah writes for IDG News Service