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iPhone cover acts as digital wallet, packs a programmable credit card

Startup iCache's answer to mobile payments is an iPhone cover has a fingerprint scanner, e-ink display, and smart card able to turn into your credit or debit card.

iCache's Geode cover for the iPhone, which acts as a digital wallet, was a hit at the CTIA Wireless show. Roger Cheng/CNET

NEW ORLEANS--Paying for goods or services at the checkout counter with your phone is the holy grail of mobile payments, something Google, the credit card companies, and the wireless providers are all trying to figure out.

But until that goes mainstream, startup iCache has a pretty novel approach for people who want to leave their wallet at home. The company's Geode product acts as both an iPhone cover and digital wallet, while packing a single programmable smart card.

It works like this: a user enters in their debit and credit card information through an included mag stripe reader, which attaches to the bottom of the cover. They can also store loyalty cards by taking a photo of the bar code. The cards can be pulled up and selected through a free iPhone app.

The included smart card, which fits into a sleeve on the back of the cover, can be programmed to temporarily act as any of the stored cards. Simply pick an account on the app, and the smart card is programed with the right information. The card itself contains a smart chip and mag stripe that can be changed according to the account chosen.

A user takes the card out, taps it once to activate it with the right account, and can be used for a limited time like a regular credit or debit card. The default is for the card to work for 20 seconds or until used, after which it goes back to being a dummy card.

An e-ink display on the rear can show the bar code for any loyalty card, allowing for easy scanning. The e-ink display gets around the inability by most scanners to read normal smartphone screens.

For security's sake, the app is secured through a biometric reader on the front of the cover, and won't start without the swipe of the appropriate finger.

Geode includes the fingerprint scanner for additional security. Roger Cheng/CNET

Geode, which actually started as a crowd-sourced Kickstarter project, was a darling of the CTIA Wireless show, winning an award in the mobile commerce category. Geode doesn't use new technology, doesn't require any new infrastructure or equipment on the retailer part, and can be used anywhere credit, debit, or loyalty cards are accepted. It acts as a bridge to the broader deployment of near-field communication, or NFC, which allows the phones themselves to act like credit cards.

Geode emerges as the mobile payments segment explodes. It was a critical topic at the conference, with executives from both MasterCard and Visa making keynote speeches about the opportunities that come from mobile payments. MasterCard actually unveiled its own digital wallet on Monday.

While the initiatives from MasterCard, Visa, Google, and the others are ambitious projects that involve broad partnerships, wholesale changes in retail and phone equipment, Geode works with all existing retailers.

"We really wanted something you can create now," said Erik Ross, chief strategy officer of iCache.

The case, however, is fairly large and bulky, similar to a battery pack cover. It's also fairly pricey at $199.

Still, Geode's capabilities have attracted a fair amount of interest. The product raised $357,000 on Kickstarter. It has also gotten 3,000 units preordered, with 1,000 ordered in the first two and a half days.

iCache was showing off a pre-production model at the show; mass production had just begun. The company plans to start selling the device in June. The cover will come in four colors: black, green, pink, and violet.

With NFC coming to phones already, it would appear the Geode's usefulness has a shelf life. But Ross believes that the broad deployment of NFC and mobile payments is still a while away. At that point, the Geode could work in conjunction with NFC.

The fingerprint reader, meanwhile, could have broader applications, particularly for security-sensitive industries, Ross said. Given the buzz that it's gotten, it could be the start of an interesting run for the Geode.