Visa International's announcement that it plans to offer members a computer-generated branch may have raised the ante yet again for bank competition over the Internet.

The card association on Wednesday entered into a partnership with Worlds Inc., a small San Francisco-based software firm, for a system to allow banks to put "virtual branches" on interactive computer networks.

The service, which Visa said will be available in the fall, will be designed to replicate a bank branch, with customers able to traverse it on their computer screens.

"This is as close to real life as walking through a branch," said Carl Pascarella, president and chief executive officer of Visa U.S.A. The on- line branches will be able to handle most types of transactions, except cash withdrawals.

Visa and its direct competitor, MasterCard, are among a growing number of companies promoting banking over on-line networks. Several major banking companies have already begun developing services for the Internet, the global communications utility for personal computers that requires security enhancements to handle sensitive financial information.

The Worlds Inc. system will use security protocols currently being developed by Visa and Microsoft Corp. Both Visa and Microsoft are said to also be receiving a piece of the transaction fees for a limited time, but no financial details have been disclosed.

The Electronic Courtyard, as the joint development is called, will also incorporate entertainment options and retail "storefronts" in a broad-based electronic mall.

Visa is currently in negotiations with a number of retailers and entertainment companies. Mr. Pascarella said these added attractions will help lure consumers into the computer-based bank branch and will spur electronic transactions.

To make the product readily available, Visa and Worlds have tied together the former's back-end processing and security measures with the latter's front-end multimedia software.

"They have the engine and we have an interior with a steering wheel," said David Gobel, president and chief executive officer of Worlds Inc.

Among Visa banks' competition on the Internet will be Cardinal Bancshares. The Lexington, Ky., banking company is testing an on-line bank dubbed Security First Network Bank. Security First is expected to be fully operational by Sept. 1. Huntington Bancshares and Wachovia Corp. have invested in the venture with an eye toward employing the technology themselves.

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