FINDINGS: "Voice commands were good for certain things but tap commands and swipe commands were better for other things" in trials of a Google Glass app, says Simon Pomeroy.

What These Banks Learned About Wearable Devices, Augmented Reality

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When Westpac New Zealand recently took its Google Glass app on a road show to branches up and down the country, customer reactions took the bankers by surprise.

For example, customers were not as interested in using voice commands with wearable computers as expected. Many in the U.S. feel that voice commands are going to be the feature that makes wearables supremely useful, and Westpac's Google Glass app is set up so the user can ask things like, "What's my balance?" out loud.

"What we've found is that people want to be able to swipe and touch rather than have voice commands, which was a really interesting insight, because people are quite personal and particular about their finances," said Simon Pomeroy, chief digital officer for the Auckland-based bank "If we're talking to someone from our bank, we would do it in a more private space. It started telling us that voice commands were good for certain things but tap commands and swipe commands were better for other things." The bank is backing off from voice recognition for now.

Westpac's experiments in letting people bank using Google Glass, smartwatches and augmented reality are a test case from which others could learn, at a time when many believe wearables are about to become mainstream and banks can't afford to lose customers to faster adopters. U.S. Bank in Minneapolis and an Australia bank have also tried out these emerging technologies and shared some of their early findings.

Test participants in Westpac's pilots have liked the speed and ease of use of Google Glass, Pomeroy said.

"The initial reaction of everybody is 'this looks quite gimmicky,'" he said. "But as soon as those glasses go on, people's perception changes in a strange way. The first thing they say is 'wow.' The second thing people do is try to get themselves into this new routine of tapping and talking. But it's amazing how after just a minute with Glass on, people get very comfortable very quickly."

One aim of Westpac's digital banking strategy is to make it so that a customer is never more than a click away from a person at the bank. That includes wearables.

"You might start in a digital world, say, 'Call Simon my banker,' and someone pops up in a corner of the screen to have a conversation with you as you go," Pomeroy related.

The bank has also been testing an app that lets people check their bank account balances from a Sony smart watch and is in the final stages of working on a Samsung version. So far, the adoption has been slow - only a few hundred people have downloaded the smart watch app. Pomeroy expects those numbers to tick up as smart watches become more popular.

Dominic Venturo, chief innovation officer at the $367 billion-asset U.S. Bank, which has also conducted smartwatch pilots, takes a rather dim view of wearables. "You have to look at the use cases," he said. "Pushing alerts [to wearables] makes sense. Anything more complicated, probably not."

He saw more potential in augmented reality, a technology Westpac is also working on. AR provides a kind of digital annotation for real-world objects by overlaying data on the screen of a device. A bank customer walking down the street could see a map of nearby ATMs and branches overlaid on the surroundings.

"We've found value in the augmented reality space with our Find US branch and ATM locator, which we launched just over two years ago," Venturo said. AR could similarly help with "Find US Offers," a location-based discount finder program the bank is piloting. It gives the user the option to seek discounts from participating nearby merchants with the click of a button.

The technology can be useful in dense urban environments where maps are not easy to interpret or navigate. It also can be useful where maps do not go, Venturo said. For example, it could direct a user to not just an address, but precisely the right side of the building.

Westpac's augmented reality, which is still under development and expected to launch in September, is a bit more involved. It lets customers do things like hover their smartphone over a credit card, and instantly view the last five transactions on that credit card account as well as make a payment. It provides 3-D visualizations of certain aspects of the customer's finances.

The concept came from a crowdsourcing challenge the bank runs in New Zealand and the U.K. A customer who happens to be a rocket scientist by training with a hobby of augmented reality created a prototype, which the bank ran through its security and other protocols and adopted.

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