Given the ubiquity of automated teller machines (ATMs) in most Western countries, it may be difficult to envision places in the world where people have never set foot in a bank nor touched an ATM. Efforts to change this are often stymied not only because locals are unfamiliar with the concept of financial services but also because they are semi-literate or illiterate, making the use of an ATM challenging.

But where is it written that an ATM must have a screen or display monitor? The long-time cash register manufacturer NCR Corp. is developing a new type of freestanding ATM, shaped like a pillar and featuring a fingerprint biometric sensor, preset cash buttons, a cash dispenser and receipt printer. A user would simply press his thumb on the sensor, push the appropriate, color-coded button for desired denominations and walk away with cash and a receipt.

The pillar ATM, which NCR is designing for rural areas in developing countries such as India and China, is waist high and could be secured to the ground with bolts or weights. The cylindrical shape is designed to minimize places where a crowbar might be applied to pry open the ATM. As an added measure of security, the machine's cash box is designed to collapse in on itself if the ATM is breached.

The pillar ATM's form and function are the result of considerable socioeconomic research in low- and middle-income countries—including how and when residents in rural areas use money, the utility of ATMs to people whose clothing often lacks pockets and the practicality of delivering modern banking services to a population literally unable to read the fine print. "The invention of this unit was based on our examination of the underbanked in India, particularly in the neighborhoods of Mumbai," says Lyle Sandler, NCR's vice president of Design and Consumer Experience. "We're talking about a community with a high level of illiteracy, so clearly the typical ATM that someone would approach would be impossible to maneuver."

Instead NCR designed its pillar ATM to resemble the post office boxes used in India. NCR researchers also found that the users they queried wouldn't consider a transaction complete without some form of receipt, "which is how and why NCR built the first cash register, so some things never went away," Sandler says.

NCR and any financial institutions that install its pillar ATMs in developing nations face a number of hurdles. In addition to dealing with illiteracy and a lack of savvy (or even interest) when it comes to financial services, regional bank branches would be responsible for fingerprinting new customers, a move that many Westerners would find intrusive as a condition for banking. Still, Sandler and his team are convinced that bank accounts and ATMs could become an alternative for rural populations in need of cash quickly, freeing them from making deals with local loan sharks.

NCR is building five prototype pillar ATMs that will be tested in the U.S. by financial services companies. Sandler declined to name these institutions but added that, if all goes well, the ATMs could be in use in their target markets within a year. If the ATMs are widely accepted—NCR indicates there's been interest beyond use in developing nations—future designs could enable bank customers to conduct transactions via mobile phones with near-field communications capabilities. In this way, customers would use their phones as a "dislocated interface" with the ATM, he adds. Not a stretch, considering how well mobile devices have flourished in African nations and India, where landline infrastructures are unreliable and computers are expensive.

It wouldn't be surprising for pillar ATMs to make their way to India's urban centers, regardless of their success in rural areas. The number of conventional ATMs in the country increased by 29 percent to 69,324 in the 12 months from January 2010 to January 2011, according to a March article in the Hindustan Times. (The U.S. had about 290,000 stand-alone ATMs as of 2009, although online banking is diminishing the demand here for ATMs.)

Image courtesy of NCR