It would probably be safe to say that most bankers perceive "virtual reality" as little more than a New Age entertainment medium rather than a tool to be wielded in their buttoned-down professional lives.
But with an eye on the future, some investment banks are turning to this most rarified of high technologies to give them an edge in rapid-fire financial markets.
ABD Securities Corp., the New York-based securities trading arm of Dresdner Bank, for instance, is using a pioneering system that allows its traders to visualize data in animated, graphic form rather than on spreadsheets or in cumbersome reports.
Sort of the Apollo moon-shot of computer technology in the financial services business, the firm, with $235 million in assets, has decided to take one giant step forward with a data distribution and display system, called the Metaphor Mixer. The software, developed by New York-based Maxus Systems International, helps traders grasp otherwise unmanageable amounts of complex information.
"Seeing [graphic-oriented data] is faster and better than reading where real-time markets are concerned," said George M. Gabriel, vice president of foreign institutional trading at ABD.
The use of virtual reality on a trading floor is based on the premise that the brain is much better equipped to grasp data presented as three-dimensional graphics than as numbers or text. Traders access this information simply by pointing to a menu of symbols displayed on the screen.
Staying on top of the markets is key at ABD because the firm serves as a broker-dealer in numerous equity markets around the world and provides trading, execution, and clearance functions for global institutional and private clients.
Mr. Gabriel, like most international traders, is responsible for keeping tabs on more than 1,200 issues at any moment of the day. That means monitoring movement of stocks from a whole slew of exchanges, including Frankfurt, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
Metaphor Mixer - which is installed at ABD using a personal computer from AST Research Inc., Irvine, Calif, with an Intel Corp. 80486 microprocessor - provides an electronic medium for simplifying large amounts of information. It also helps traders identify opportunities and discern the patterns and trends in financial markets.
"The level of detail the system offers is a significant step because of the kind of power and visualization it puts in the hands of traders," said Donald E. McNees, vice president and director of the New York financial services consulting practice at Towers Perrin.
"When those windows of opportunity open, they don't stay open for all that long," Mr. Gabriel said.
True to its roots, Metaphor Mixer looks like a cutting-edge video game. The screen is a jamboree of colors and shapes, each assigned with a different meaning. It is controlled by a hand-held device called a spaceball. But a glorified PacMan it's not.
How does it work? The screen gives sort of a bird's-eye view of a large playing field. The field is marked off into rectangles. One side of the grid lists industry groups - finance, paper, utilities, electricals, and so on. The other side is broken down into various stock exchanges. In each rectangle there are several different colored electronic poker chips, each indicating a stock in an industry group.
The colors of the chips are important. For example, red means that the stock is down from the day before; blue, that the stock is up; and gray, that the stock is little changed from the previous day.
The movement of the chips is equally important. A spinning chip indicates that the stock has very attractive fundamentals. If a chip is blinking, some lucrative arbitrage opportunities have cropped up.
The next factor to watch for is the relative position of the chips. How far above or below the surface of the playing field tells you how far up or down the stock is trading relative to the rest of the market that day.
Traders can also get a closer look. Using the spaceball, the user can swoop down to the field or underneath it. Mr. Gabriel can get the name of an individual stock and all the particulars by clicking the spaceball on it.
"If things are hectic, I can look at the screen and get an instant perspective," he said.
As far as industry observers are concerned, the jury is still out on virtual-reality trading systems. "Most investment bankers I've dealt with still like to see the numbers on a spreadsheet," said Stan D . Monsowitz, director of financial services consulting at the marketing development unit of Cap Gemini America Consulting, New York.
Metaphor Mixer "might make life easier for some traders, but I don't know if it could be a real big seller."
Others, however, say that the rise of global investment opportunities and the booming popularity of derivative products have created an even bigger market for tools like this.
"The technological level required to analyze these markets is making it more of a technology race" than anything else, said Mr. McNees of Towers Perrin. "The person with the fastest capability to focus on the trading opportunity and the know-how to execute it will have the premium."
Mr. Gabriel's boss agrees. "To get an edge in the markets, you have to have some special tools on the trading desk," said Herbert Doenges, manager of ABD'S equities and fixed-income trading areas.
From his vantage point, Mr. Gabriel believes ABD's virtual-reality trading system will help the firm's relatively small 140-employee investment bank compete against the Wall Street powerhouses.