The Development of the World’s First Talking ATM

Image of user with guide dog at RBC's Talking ATM, c.1997

User with guide dog at RBC's talking ATM, 1997

Since RBC had already established a business relationship with T-Base Communications, it seemed a natural fit for the bank to work with the company once more to create what no one had ever done before – a fully accessible Automated Teller Machine. Ted Murphy, then a new hire with the RBC, was tasked with working alongside T-Base, NCR and other stakeholders to begin developing this technology in April 1997.

Both the Starks and Ayotte agree that Murphy was key to making the talking ATM a success, mainly due to how he helped facilitate the user testing that the Starks insisted was crucial to creating a practical and long-term solution. Working alongside T-Base Communication and NCR, Murphy and his colleagues at RBC came up with a number of prototypes. A select, but varied group of consumers subsequently experimented with these models to see if they were indeed practical. Although the concept of usability and user testing was becoming increasingly popular in industrial design by this time, this was one of the first instances when a corporation implemented such testing to develop an assistive technology for customers with disabilities.[1] Murphy described this process as central to developing the adaptive technology, which in turn helped the RBC conceptualize of the needs of customers with disabilities more effectively than ever before.[2]         

In the end, what comprised the talking ATM was an NCR machine retrofitted with an audio interface that would guide users through the process of performing essential tasks like taking out and depositing money, paying bills and checking accounts. T-Base developed the scripting for the machine and NCR worked alongside to equip the machine with an output jack within which users could plug in earphones. The installation was also made less difficult by the fact that RBC had begun using OS/2, an IBM operating system that predated and later competed with Microsoft Windows. This system was much more adaptable than ones that had come before it, and less hampered by proprietary restrictions in comparison to ATM systems at many other leading banks of the time.[3]

The fact that the RBC’s ATMs used OS/2 made retrofitting the audio interface all that much easier and remarkably quick to accomplish. Within just six months, RBC launched the first talking ATM with much fanfare on October 22, 1997. Above is an image of a man with his guide dog making use of the earphones to deposit money into the machine at the official launch. A dozen more ATMs across the country were equipped with the same audio interface by the spring of 1998, at which time T-Base Communications also began installing them on Deloitte ATM machines in San Francisco.[4] This first talking ATM marked a significant transition in terms of personal banking more broadly. Now accessible ATM’s are the standard for many banks across North America. The majority of ATMs at RBC and elsewhere have upgraded to more sophisticated operating systems, while the scripted audio is now computerized script to speech. Yet, the audio interface first installed in 1997 has changed very little otherwise. The audible instructions, jack for earphones and blacking out of the screen remain intact as the talking ATM has now become a mainstream technology.   

 

*** Many thanks to the Royal Bank of Canada for allowing the research group to take photos of contemporary talking ATMs at their Royal Bank branch at 99 Bank Street, as well as for generously sharing archival material that made this exhibit possible. ***      

 

 


[1] For a timeline of the idea of usability, see Jeff Sauro’s “History of Usability” http://uxmas.com/2013/history-of-usability

[2] Telephone correspondence with Ted Murphy,  11 May 2016.

[3] OS/2 did not do as well in the personal computing industry as IBM designers had thought it would, but it did have a surprising long life within urban infrastructure, including transit and ATMs. For a more popular perspective on the history of OS/2, see Harry McCracken’s “Twenty-Five Years of IBM’s OS/2: The Strange Days and Surprising Afterlife of a Legendary Operating System,” TIME (2 April 2012) http://techland.time.com/2012/04/02/25-years-of-ibms-os2-the-birth-death-and-afterlife-of-a-legendary-operating-system/3/ 

[4] Stuart McCarthy, “Blind Banking on New ATMS: Talking Tellers Help Visually Impaired,” Ottawa Sun (23 October 1997); “Royal Bank Makes it Easier for All Clients—Including People with Disabilities and the Elderly—to Access Financial Services Information,” Royal Bank Press Release, Toronto (12 September 1996)