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Virtual Banking Worlds Provide Tangible Lessons

It's a fact of doing business — even the most useful banking apps will not get as much screen time as Angry Birds. But bankers can learn from popular games and use similar technology as part of their customer interactions.

Some vendors, including Hewlett-Packard Co., are even building gamelike digital branches for banks.

These venues could appeal to niches such as young adults or early adopters of new technology, said Nicole Sturgill, a research director with TowerGroup in Needham, Mass.

"There will be a certain segment of the population that will never want to touch it and then there will be a segment of the population that likes the video-game feel of it," Sturgill said. The key is tailoring the program to that audience.

Altra Federal Credit Union in La Crosse, Wis., is one of four financial institutions that have contracts with Thwakk Inc., a provider of a banking game world called Mo'doh Island. It has been using a customized version to provide financial education to students at area high schools, said Lori Horstman, the education manager at Altra.

Students create avatars — digital representations of themselves — that they use online to perform different tasks within the island, which uses some of Altra's branding.

The primary focus is on providing important financial lessons to students, though a side benefit is the ability to make future potential customers aware of the 68,000-member credit union, Horstman said.

"From a marketing perspective, it definitely helps us build relationships with the youth that maybe wouldn't see us otherwise," Horstman said.

HP, partnering with the communications software company Avaya Inc., also offers banks a "virtual branch" product that they can use for marketing products and services, doing remote meetings with customers, training employees and performing other activities.

The 3-D environment, based on a platform called web.Alive that HP and Avaya demonstrated this month at a conference in New York, allows bankers and their customers to navigate avatars through a computerized replica of a customizable bank branch.

The demo version had a similar look and feel to Second Life, an online virtual world that some real-life banks have used in recent years as a marketing and financial literacy tool.

A foreign bank involved in retail banking, credit card issuing, investment banking and wealth management is using web.Alive for employee training, Kevin Reilly, the financial services vertical leader at Avaya, said in an interview. He would not name the bank, citing the client's request for anonymity.

Larry Ryan, a chief technologist at HP, said web.Alive is a flexible tool with many uses.

"We don't necessarily know where this is going to go," Ryan said in an interview. "It's a new thing."

He added that web.Alive could be used to reach high-net-worth clients or to help banks that lack a large network of physical branches raise their profile.

"This sort of technology is very specific," Ryan said. "It's part of a channel strategy for a bank."

The portal, which a bank's customers would access by installing a software plug-in on their computers, could be customized to let multiple customers interact at the same time. It can also be used for one-on-one sessions with a bank employee.

"It would be part of the design process for deciding if access is public or private," Tim Evans, the director of retail banking in HP's enterprise business, said in emailed responses to questions provided by a spokeswoman.

"The current concept is to allow multiple customers to be present, browsing the virtual bank, but to enter private chat rooms for" one-on-one discussions, Evans said.

Banks have experimented with virtual environments before.

A handful of banks bought virtual land to set up private islands several years ago in Second Life, an online world started by Linden Research Inc. in San Francisco. However, many businesses that went into Second Life eventually left, partly due to the anything-goes nature of the unmoderated virtual world. Another factor was that Second Life already had a thriving economy based on its own virtual currency, the Linden dollars.

"There were a lot of big companies that came into Second Life with the idea that this is going to be the next big medium that especially young people are going to get into," said Wagner James Au, a former contractor for Linden who writes for Mediabistro.com's SocialTimes Pro website and is the author of "The Making of Second Life: Notes from the New World."

"The main problem is that the software was and to a certain extent [still] is not mass market," Au said. "It's not user-friendly enough to be mass market, especially compared to an iPhone game or Facebook games."

Another issue for banks and other businesses considering virtual worlds as a way to interact with customers is justifying its use when they have online banking and mobile applications at their fingertips.